COVID-19 symptoms, screening and testing: Insight for cancer patients and caregivers

Some cancer patients take medications that suppress their immune systems as a part of their treatment. That makes them more susceptible to infections, such as the flu or 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Washing your hands properly and often, avoiding touching your face and other simple strategies can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other contagious diseases.

But what COVID-19 symptoms should cancer patients and their caregivers be on the lookout for? When do cancer patients need to be screened for COVID-19, and what does that screening process look like? And, in what cases do cancer patients need to be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus?

We spoke with infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D., to learn more.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how do they differ from those of a cold or the flu?

Fever, cough and shortness of breath are the most commonly reported symptoms. Sore throat has also been associated with this coronavirus. These symptoms are very similar to those associated with the flu or the common cold.

So, how would I know if I have COVID-19 or something else?

It really all depends on your exposure.

You are only at risk of catching COVID-19 if you’ve traveled recently to an area where documented cases have been reported, or if you’ve been around someone who may have the virus.

How quickly could I develop symptoms after exposure to the virus?

It may take up to 14 days before COVID-19 symptoms appear.

As a cancer patient, when do I need to be tested for COVID-19?

Right now, it all hinges on whether or not you have COVID-19 symptoms. If you have a fever, a cough, a runny nose or are feeling short of breath, contact someone on your MD Anderson care team right away. They will ask screening questions to determine whether or not you should be tested for COVID-19, and provide guidance on what to do next, based on your particular situation.

If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, it is imperative that you call ahead before coming to MD Anderson. That way, our staff can adequately prepare for your arrival. This will allow us to protect both our staff and our patients from possible exposure.

What happens during a COVID-19 screening? When do I need to be tested for COVID-19?

First, we’ll screen you to determine if testing is needed. When you get to an MD Anderson building entry point, a public safety officer will ask you some questions, such as if you’ve been traveling recently, where and when you went, and how long you stayed there. They will also ask you if you’ve been around anyone else who has traveled to high-risk areas, or come into close contact with someone who is known to have the virus.

Next, they will take your vital signs, including your temperature, to determine if you have a fever. They will also ask if you’ve been coughing, felt short of breath, or shown any other symptoms. Based on that, they’ll determine if you need to be tested for COVID-19.

What is COVID-19 testing like?

A cotton swab (like a Q-tip, but with a very long stick) will be inserted into your nose to obtain a sample of mucus from the sinus cavity, and another swab will be inserted in your mouth (like a strep test) to take a sample from your throat. Neither swab should hurt, but they might be uncomfortable enough to trigger a cough or a gag reflex.

The mucus samples will be sent off to a lab. Your doctor’s office will call to let you know the results.

If you get screened at MD Anderson, you will also be tested for 21 other pathogens, including rhinoviruses, three types of flu, and other common coronaviruses, such as those which cause colds.

What should I do if I test positive for COVID-19?

If you’re an MD Anderson patient and undergo testing here, you will be contacted by someone from Infection Control at MD Anderson and the City of Houston Health Department with instructions on what to do next.

If you are sick enough, you may be admitted to the hospital.

What should I do if I test negative for COVID-19?

Follow the advice of your doctor or care team. Get plenty of rest and fluids, and contact your care team if you have any questions.

Learn more about precautions MD Anderson is taking to protect our patients and workforce members from the coronavirus.

Editor's note: This article was last updated on April 1, 2020.