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What does it take to recover from coronavirus? It depends, experts say

A background on the coronavirus and its symptoms
WATCH: A background on the new coronavirus disease and its symptoms

As cases of the new coronavirus grow around the globe so, too, does the number of people who have recovered.

There have been more than 121,000 confirmed infections of COVID-19 worldwide as of March 11. While about 4,400 have died, just over half of those infected (66,239) have healed, including five from Ontario.

While the death rate is still hard to peg, experts agree that recovery depends on the severity of the infection.

“The vast majority of people are going to have a very mild infection and will do just fine,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital. “They’ll be asked to stay home. They’ll have a fever and a cough. It’ll be symptoms similar to a cold, which they’ve probably had countless times before, and they’ll get better in a few days.”

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To recover from a mild case of COVID-19, patients will apply the same treatment methods as the common cold, he said. Doctors will recommend plenty of fluids and electrolytes, acetaminophen for fevers and aches and, most importantly, staying home to rest and reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

COVID-19 cases are considered to be more serious — and more difficult to recover from — when the virus starts impacting the lungs, Bogoch said.

He compared it to pneumonia, which requires medical intervention.

“When people have shortness of breath or trouble breathing, you can’t wait that out at home. You have to be seen in a hospital setting,” he said.

Who to contact if you have COVID-19 symptoms
Who to contact if you have COVID-19 symptoms

Hospitals use some of the same methods to help more serious cases improve, including fluids and rest, but they can also provide things like supplementary oxygen to help recovery.

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“Supplemental oxygen can range from a lot of different things, from the minor to the major. Some people might need nasal prongs, providing a little bit of oxygen through a nose tube. The most extreme is when people need to be seen in the intensive care unit and require a breathing tube and ventilator machine,” Bogoch said.

“COVID-19 or not, if you’re seen in an intensive care unit, your recovery can be rather protracted.”

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It’s older people — especially those with a history of chronic illness — who are the most at risk of contracting the virus in the first place. A recent study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the virus has so far most seriously affected older people with pre-existing health problems. The data suggests a person’s chances of dying from COVID-19 only increase with age, with the risk of dying particularly high among patients in their 70s and 80s.

So far, most of those who have died from the virus had “underlying health conditions,” such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases, according to the World Health Organization.

“Basically, what people need to recover, based on everything we know right now, is just a fairly robust immune system. That’s our best guess,” said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.

“When you get into the older demographics, things get a bit cloudier. The question becomes, will they require ICU care? A lot of the data coming out of China suggests that if you ended up in the ICU and you ended up on mechanical ventilation, you did not have a good prognosis.”

These varying factors — age demographic and pre-existing health conditions — will skew the time it takes for people to get better as well. The milder cases are typically the fastest to get back on their feet, while those who make it to the ICU could spend weeks recovering.

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COVID-19: WHO says coronavirus is more deadly than the flu
COVID-19: WHO says coronavirus is more deadly than the flu

But what’s known so far about recovery is still the “nuances of very, very early recovery,” he said.

“We’re still only in Week 11 of an epidemic,” Kindrachuk said. The WHO officially classified it as a pandemic on March 11.

“The overall picture right now is still a little bit complicated.”

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The trajectory of those who do make it out of the virus alive is also cloudy.

Both Kindrachuk and Bogoch agree that those who recover from mild COVID-19 cases are unlikely to see lingering health issues, but it’s too soon to say what lasting impacts the virus will have on those who recover from more serious cases.

Kindrachuk made some predictions based on the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus, is part of the same family as COVID-19. That virus infected more than 8,000 and killed nearly 800 around the world, including 44 Canadians.

“We know that the SARS patients who were admitted to the ICU, they suffered quite a bit of lung damage. Many ended up with pulmonary fibrosis, which is essentially the scarring of lung tissue,” said Kindrachuck. “That alone brings complications because it, unfortunately, doesn’t resolve.”

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Toronto hospital built with SARS in mind
Toronto hospital built with SARS in mind

But the vast majority will have a “very mild infection” and will do “just fine,” according to Bogoch. He said it would be “very unusual” for people with a “mild respiratory infection of any kind to see chronic residual issues after the infection.”

The same advice remains either way:

“You could have very, very mild symptoms and still transmit,” Kindrachuk said. “We need people to take it upon themselves and stay home.”

— With files from the Associated Press