Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
I was hospitalized with COVID-19 for two weeks in March. I was very lucky to avoid needing a ventilator, but the road to recovery has been long and confusing. I’ve struggled with residual pneumonia, alarming pains and sensations, anxiety and depressive feelings, a diminished sense of smell, what seem like hormonal changes, and continuing fatigue. I’m terrified of being reinfected, especially when I still feel weakened by the illness. How should I interpret the seemingly conflicting news about reinfection? Even if those of us who already had COVID-19 are unlikely to have a serious case the second time, can we still infect others if we get the virus again?
F. T. Kola
San Francisco, California
I’m not sure that telling people not to worry is ever productive. It tends to have the opposite effect. It’s like telling a person not to look at the horrifying thing happening right over their shoulder. So while I won’t tell you not to worry about this, hopefully I can give you cause not to.
I get why you’re concerned. If anxiety is born out of uncertainty, it doesn’t pair well with thinking about the immune system. The biggest lingering questions about this virus all have to do with immunity. We can’t chart a course back to anything resembling normal life until we know how reliably immunity is developed by infected people, and how long it lasts. If people have even a small chance of getting sick twice within a matter of months, it could mean that many may not feel comfortable going back to the life they once lived until a vaccine is in widespread use.