A person’s COVID-19 viral load could impact how sick they get

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Doctors are researching the impact of a patient’s viral load when they are infected with COVID-19. The viral load is how many virus particles a person has in their body. Now, researchers think that perhaps the more COVID-19 virus particles people have, then the sicker they get.

“You can be infected with a little bit of COVID or a lot of COVID,” said Kristen Kelley. “That’s what we would call a dose-response. So, what they are saying is if you are infected with a lot, you may be more likely to be symptomatic and or have more serious results.”

Kelley is the nursing director of Infection Prevention for Indiana University Health. Lately, she’s been vaccinating healthcare workers and fellow colleagues who are discovering more about the virus every day.

“You have to have a certain level of the virus to even cause an infection,” said Kelley. 

Kelley said people should think of the viral load like a cup of water. There can be a little bit of water or a lot of water in a cup. Just like the amount of water, the viral load is the amount of virus in someone’s body.

“When you start getting some signs and symptoms of COVID, it is usually when you have the highest viral load in your body,” said Kelley.

A paper published by the Columbia University Medical Center said that patients with high levels of the virus detected after a week of infection were significantly more likely to be hospitalized or die. Healthcare workers said this is yet another reason people should be diligent about wearing masks.

“The benefit of wearing the mask is if I am exposed, it will keep the virus particles low. So, it may be that I get COVID, but I don’t get that pronounced of symptoms because I didn’t acquire that much virus,” 

While most people aren’t typically tested for their COVID-19 viral load, doctors said this could be a helpful tool in the future. If patients are curious about their viral load, they can ask their healthcare provider for a viral load test, however, it is not a common practice.

“We are learning a lot about COVID, those risk factors are key and the viral load is key,” said Kelley.