My 2023 Covid Story: What Worked, What Didn't

Plague doctor

So there I was, in the emergency room at 4 am with a sore, swollen throat. It didn't make any sense. The staff were confused. At first they said they were going to treat for strep without doing a test. They worried about false negatives. Then they tested anyway. It came back negative.

"Maybe you have thrush," one of them said. "That's weird."

"We can test you for HIV."

"Or diabetes."

They didn't explain how they would confirm thrush. They didn't offer to run the strep test again. I don't know if you've ever gone from strep to diabetes to HIV in 30 minutes, but it doesn't put you in a very good mood. Plus, nobody was wearing masks.

So I left.

How did I get here?

A few days before, my mother-in-law had called to let us know she'd tested positive for Covid. She most likely picked it up from our daughter when she visited our new little house. (Yes, we're moving.) My daughter and I were already feeling sick. They thought I was overreacting when I chose to isolate, and they decided to spend the day their their granddaughter anyway. Later, when my mother-in-law shared her Covid news, we were already back on the road to the old house, where most of our stuff remains. You know, it wasn't a complete shock.

At that point, I felt mostly fine.

So did my spouse.

Thanksgiving had gone about as well as we could manage. We haven't done a full family gathering since the pandemic started. Instead, we meet up with a handful of family. Every time, we bring at least two air purifiers. This Thanksgiving, we only met with my parents-in-law. No siblings. No aunts. No uncles. No cousins. We had two air purifiers plus a Corsi-Rosenthal box set up. With that plus nose sprays, it was the best we could do. If it were up to me, we probably wouldn't do any gatherings at all, period. Maybe that's extreme.

My dad is the only one who still wears a mask in public.

He's a chemical engineer.

He gets it.

There wasn't much we could do after the official Covid news. We were already on the road. We finished our drive back, stopping for a night at an AirBnB. At the AirBnB, we came inside and set up our big HEPA air purifier. We wore masks for the first 10-15 minutes and did our nose sprays.

Early the next morning, I woke up with a sore throat. No fever. No fatigue. No cough. No other symptoms. Just the throat.

"Covid's back," I thought.

Here's where I clearly made a mistake. Assuming it was Covid, I probably overdid it a little on my sprays. I was already blending Enovid and Covixyl. To deal with my throat, I added Xylitol and Bioshell, an antiseptic mouth spray. When we got home, I gargled a couple of times with CPC mouthwash. I was also using Listerine as part of my normal dental routine.

In hindsight, that was dumb.

As it turns out, antiseptic mouthwashes and sprays throw off your oral microbiome. They kill all the bacteria in your mouth, not just the kind that cause tooth and gum disease. They can cause thrush, and they can make existing thrush much worse. When we say thrush, we mean candida, a fungus that normally lives in your mouth but grows out of control under certain circumstances.

It's not something to take lightly.

You wouldn't think nose sprays play any role in that, but they drain down the back of your throat. So, yes, they can potentially contribute, even if they're not the main factor.

As you can imagine, I went to bed after nuking my oral microbiome and woke up a few hours later in pretty bad shape. I finally grabbed a flashlight and looked at my throat in the mirror. It was an alarming sight.

Thrush in the back of your throat does look a lot like strep. It fooled the first guy in the ER who looked at me.

He was sure.

In the end, my ER visit wasn't especially helpful. They pointed me in the right direction, but nobody had the slightest clue what would cause thrush in an adult other than a substantially weakened immune system. I even told them I'd recently had Covid. They didn't make any connections. I tried prompting them to acknowledge that Covid can weaken your immune system and lead to secondary infections.

They said nothing.

I had to figure out myself what was going on:

  1. Covid can lead to an oral fungal infection.
  2. So can overuse of antiseptic sprays.
  3. So can antiseptic mouthwashes.

After the ER, I immediately tried to figure out how to get my immune system looked at. Several people on Twitter recommended a lymphocyte panel, and someone shared a site to a commercial lab. I booked an appointment and got blood drawn.

Two days later, I had results.

Here they are:

A lymphocyte panel gives you a comprehensive look at your T Cells. It provides counts of CD3, CD4, CD8, CD16, and CD19 cells. Mine were all at normal levels. A couple of them were on the low end, especially my CD19 cells. It feels good to know where things stand, and I can work on getting my immune system back up to full strength.

That's going to take more research. It's going to involve more than a couple of supplements.

Finally, my heart rate was hovering in the 90s the entire time I was dealing with Covid and candida. It finally dropped back down into the low 70s yesterday. I monitored my heartrate and oxygen levels with an oximeter. I'd recommend getting one.

It's good to finally have detailed information on my immune system. This is technically my second Covid infection. Last summer, it put me in bed for several days with fatigue and fever.

My takeaway:

My family has been extremely careful, but there were some weak points. Before Thanksgiving break, my spouse took my daughter to a crowded outdoor party, assuming it was safe. That's where she most likely picked up Covid. It was the only time she was near a lot of other people. Since then, we found more compelling evidence that crowded outdoor gatherings aren't that safe, especially during late fall and winter if it's cloudy. It takes longer for aerosols to disperse.

Second, our testing game needs work.

Rapid tests have a high unreliability rate. This latest infection convinced us to always test the poop first. Yes, you swab your poop just like you'd swab your nose and then follow the instructions as usual. Don't use too much poop. If the solution is too thick, the test won't work right.

I know it's gross, but it's necessary.

That's how I've seen people testing their poop for Covid. Some places sell Covid fecal tests, so I'll be looking into that.

In the future, we're looking to spend a little money on higher-quality tests. If we had more accurate tests, we could arrange safer family gatherings. I can't ask my in-laws to test their poop every time we visit.

There's boundaries, you know.

The positive Covid tests did kind of freak me out, and my sore throat left me feeling like a failure. As it turns out, my fungal infection most likely happened because I was overusing antiseptic sprays and mouthwash. It threw off the bacterial balance in my mouth. Combine that with a Covid infection, and I think you've got a good explanation. To be sure, I'll be doing another lymphocyte panel in a few months. Honestly, I'll probably do one every year for the foreseeable future.

A lot of people like to go around bragging about their strong immune system. It's better to actually know.

My spouse never felt sick at all, despite spending lots of time with a Covid positive child over a holiday break.

The nose sprays seemed to work.

That's something.

Out of the three of us, I'm always the one who gets the sickest. I had pneumonia when I was a kid. My parents smoked around me my entire life. I'm prone to infections. That said, I don't think I was ever truly sick or struck down with Covid this last bout.

It was the fungal infection.

I'll chalk that up to being careful, getting boosted every chance I get, switching to Novavax, always wearing an N95 in public, using nose and throat sprays, sending my daughter to a school where she's usually outside, and measuring the indoor spaces and getting them appropriate air filtration for whenever they're inside. All that has kept us mostly safe from Covid.

We're addressing some weak points:

I'm backing off antiseptic mouthwashes and mouth sprays for now and digging into more research on that front. The good thing is that xylitol has antimicrobial qualities but actually nourishes the beneficial bacteria in your biome. It also shows antifungal activity. My thrush infection went down significantly a few hours after I stopped using everything except Enovid and xylitol. So I'm feeling good about using this combo at the moment.

We've got a plan in place now so that my daughter is never going to be inside with other kids for more than a few minutes, especially now that we're seeing very high spread of Covid and other respiratory viruses in our area. We're going to make sure everyone keeps their masks on and maintains their distance, even if they go to an outdoor event. We're going to look into better tests. If we have to travel while sick, we're going to wear masks in the car.

There's one last thing.

A positive Covid test doesn't mean you've failed. It doesn't mean your masks, air purifiers, and nose sprays didn't work.

They did.

They most likely kept your exposure low. If you rest and take care of yourself, there's a good chance you'll dodge the worst long-term outcomes. That's the goal at this point. Public health has largely failed us, and that means we have to inform ourselves.

Minimize the damage.

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