“My COVID symptoms came on very quickly and very heavily,” says Cora Oliver, 22. “The next day, all the skin above the top knuckle started to peel.”When Cora contracted COVID-19 four months ago, most of her symptoms were the usual; brain fog, tiredness etc. Then, on the fourth day, she began to notice her hands. “The top quarter of all my fingers started to get really dry and flaky-looking a few days into testing positive,” she remembers. “I started to do a lot of research on symptoms, especially on Reddit.”
Cora is one thousands of people that have taken to Reddit for medical advice and general COVID anecdote sharing since the pandemic began. “I saw stories of people’s fingers getting super dry and peeling,” she says. “I didn’t talk to my doctor about it though, as my main symptoms started to alleviate and my skin went back to normal.”From hair loss to “COVID toe” (a rash that has been known to appear on some patients’ toes), Reddit's subreddits have become thriving communities for monitoring unusual, lesser-known or possible symptoms. One such page is r/Covid19Positive. “A place for people who came back positive for COVID-19 can share your stories, experiences, answer questions and vent!” reads the page’s bio. Founded in March 2020, the subreddit now has over 120,000 members. For Cora, r/Covid19Positive was the only place on the internet she was able to find other people with similarly bizarre ailments. “I noticed the sides of my fingers were peeling, which I’ve never really had before,” writes one user. “Yes! I had this as well on my hands and feet... it lasted a few weeks, then went back to normal,” replies another.Symptoms for COVID are overwhelmingly vast; so far, there are over 20 possible symptoms but they are also frequently changing. Since the pandemic began, experts have found an increasingly diverse pool of possible signs of the disease, making it difficult to settle on a core set for too long. Plus, the relative newness of the virus makes it harder to know which symptoms are psychosomatic or unrelated, which are rare and which are the result of a new variant.
“We're seeing less muscle aches now than we used to in the early days and slightly less stomach problems,” explains Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College and the co-founder of the ZOE COVID symptom study – the world's largest ongoing study of the virus, with over four million participants tracking their experiences. Currently, the most common symptoms recorded by the Zoe COVID study app are loss of smell, runny nose and sore throat – but symptoms can vary from person to person based on a variety of factors, including immune system and time of year. When it comes to peeling fingers, Spector doesn't disregard it as a symptom entirely. “It sounds similar to COVID toe, which is definitely real,” he says.“It’s more commonly experienced on the toe but can involve the fingers. It looks like chilblains and it can also involve peeling skin. The ZOE app reported on this at a time when no one was and no one took it seriously.”Weirder still, reports of extra prune-y fingers have become increasingly common on COVID subreddits. Diana Pardo, 23, began to notice that her skin shrivelled moments after she came into contact with water. “It was about day five of having COVID when I realised that within minutes of showering my hands became extremely prune-y,” she remembers. “What first came to my attention was that my hands began to feel really tight and dry while rinsing my hair. I then looked at my hands that had a very, very shrivelled texture which I hadn’t experienced before.”
For Spector, COVID-related prune-y fingers sound a bit far-fetched. Still, just because something isn’t well-documented, doesn’t mean it’s unrelated. “I mean, nail changes, yes, but I have not heard of wrinkly fingers before,” he says. “But it is very hard to say that something doesn't exist. There are so many symptoms of the virus.”Others have reported even more extreme reactions. “One morning in 2020, I began to experience flu-like symptoms,” says Rebecca Lefevre, 31. “I was fatigued and achy and remained bed bound. It wasn’t until later that day that I started to notice the skin around my neck was itchy. The itchiness got worse and I could feel it spread to my face, particularly my forehead.” Soon, the rash got worse and Rebecca’s lips began to swell. “It got really big and I started to panic, thinking this was possibly COVID-related and was I going to die from this? I was frantically searching the internet for clues, but at the time there wasn’t really any information about it.” Eventually Rebecca phoned an ambulance. “The paramedic arrived promptly within 30 minutes and asked me the usual questions. I asked him if he thought that the rash was connected to the virus to which he was very dismissive. They gave me some antihistamines and left.” A year later, rashes are a well documented symptom of COVID. “Although they have come and gone a bit in terms of how common they are more recently,” says Spector.
Not all of the unusual symptoms discussed on Reddit are skin-related. Marco Bugani, 30, believes that contracting the virus has brought on an intense spell of insomnia. “COVID has messed up my sleeping altogether. It’s hard for me to fall asleep now,” he shared via Reddit. “The moment I sleep at a normal schedule, I just get woken up later by a nightmare of me usually trying to fight something off of me.”Months later, Marco’s insomnia has continued to torment him. “After a while I recovered and was able to run and do other physical activities but I still wanted to sleep during the daytime and stay awake at night.”Eventually Marco began asking around, but he couldn’t find anyone that could give him any solid advice. “I have mentioned it to doctors before, but it gets sent to the side as something temporary mainly because, at the end of the day, I do get sleep although not quality sleep. I don't know people personally that have this. But then I read on the internet that others do.”While users are often looking for genuine help for their various unexplained and unexpected symptoms, high levels of stress caused by the virus – or fear of the virus – could also be causing the body to act in unusual ways. We know, for example, that chronic stress can wreak havoc on the immune system. “Sleep is often more stress related, rather than actually the virus itself,” says Spector.
“It doesn't mean we can rule it out – it just means that we haven't had enough people mentioning it for us to record it yet. But I guess, if someone has had COVID badly, it might just change their stress levels and will disturb their sleep.”At the moment, scientists and medical experts are still divided on which symptoms are caused by which variants. Even so, trawling Reddit for medical advice can’t be the wisest option – especially considering how often the site has had issues with rapidly spreading misinformation.That said, for the thousands of people taking to Reddit in search of answers, standard government advice has clearly not provided peace of mind.“There are signs of the virus that are much more common than the ones the government is talking about,” Spector says. “Ultimately, the biggest COVID myth is that the government knows best.”@ellieapeake