Dec. 23, 2020 -- In an ordinary December, you’d expect to see lighthearted year-end roundups based on search trends -- the words or phrases most often searched for over the course of the year. These lists offer us an interesting lens to view recent history.
At WebMD, those popular search terms often relate to weight loss plans or the disease that struck a certain celebrity that year. But this is no ordinary December. In 2020, no health topic has been as sought-out as information about COVID.
We published our first story about the mysterious outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 10. Since then, WebMD has run thousands of news stories, explainers, blog posts, and videos about it. With each new discovery concerning the virus, readers have come here in search of information.
Because COVID-19 dominated search trends, we focused this year’s top-10-searched list on terms are directly related to them. Here’s the list, along with a look at why so many people wanted to learn about these specific topics:
- Coronavirus / What is coronavirus? It’s no surprise that the most basic question about the virus is the most common COVID search term for the year. Until 2020, most of us had never even heard the word “coronavirus,” although these viruses have been around for many, many years. The common cold can be caused by one of the milder types. Though after this year, most of us wouldn’t complain if we never heard the term again.
- Coronavirus symptoms / COVID-19 symptoms: When a new, deadly virus becomes a pandemic, people need to know which symptoms to watch for. COVID’s symptoms seemed similar to the flu at first, with fever, fatigue, and a cough most common. But as time went by, new effects emerged -- we now know the infection can cause the loss of smell or taste, an upset stomach, and even a stroke. And then there are the less common problems caused by COVID, like pinkeye, fainting, and damage to organs, including the lungs, heart, kidneys, or liver. Most confusing of all: Some people who’ve been infected have no symptoms at all, though they can still spread the disease.
- Hydroxychloroquine: Sometimes, an existing drug turns out to work beautifully on a new disease. Other times, like with hydroxychloroquine, theories get ahead of science, with confusing results. Back in March, COVID-19 was overwhelming hospitals in New York City and elsewhere. People were terrified and hoping for a fast cure. That’s when some doctors touted hydroxychloroquine, already approved for treating malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, as a potential cure. President Donald Trump tweeted that together with another drug, it could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” A few days later, one man died after mistakenly taking an additive with a similar name used in aquariums. In late March, the FDA granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Sales of the drug rose sharply after Trump announced he was taking it as a preventive measure. That led to shortages for lupus patients who rely on the drug to prevent flare-ups. The whole mess came to an embarrassing end when the FDA reversed course and revoked the EUA in mid-June, after the drug failed to prove protective and caused heart rhythm problems in some patients.
- Dexamethasone: As poorly as things went with hydroxychloroquine, another existing drug remains promising -- but only in severe cases. Dexamethasone is a kind of corticosteroid. So far, studies have shown that for critically ill patients, it cuts the death rate by about one-third. The National Institutes of Health now recommends it for patients who need supplemental oxygen or have been put on a ventilator. When Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, he received the drug, which prompted speculation about how sick he really was.
- Normal body temperature: Fever is the most common symptom of COVID, so these days, many stores and offices will take your temperature before allowing you inside. But what, exactly, is the right number? It turns out that 98.6 F is no longer considered the “normal” body temperature. For most adults, it changes during the day and ranges anywhere from 97 F to 99 F. Babies’ normal temperatures run a little higher, from 97.9 F to 101.4 F.
- Symptoms of depression: OK, so this one isn’t strictly COVID-related. But it made the top-10 list because rates of depression have tripled in the U.S. since pre-COVID times. As a country, we’re living through the most challenging period many of us will ever experience. Financial woes contribute, but so do fear and isolation. And after 10 months of living in various stages of lockdown, COVID malaise is rampant.
- How long does COVID-19 live on surfaces? Think back to the early days of the pandemic, when nobody really understood how the coronavirus spread. Preliminary studies found that depending on the surface, the virus could live anywhere from a few hours to several days, so of course we all rushed out to buy disinfectant. Remember that viral video, in which a doctor demonstrated how he meticulously wiped down and sanitized his groceries? We now know that level of care isn’t necessary -- the virus spreads primarily through the air -- but for a while it seemed as if simply touching infected surfaces might be enough to make you sick.
- How many people die from the flu each year? This seems like a perfectly ordinary question, until you factor in the misinformation that’s been clouding our country’s COVID response. Many COVID deniers liken it to the flu, and believe mask restrictions are an overreaction. But when you compare the numbers, COVID proves far more deadly. Between 8,200 and 20,000 Americans die of the flu each year. The World Health Organization estimates the flu’s mortality rate is around 0.1%. But with COVID, the U.S. will have more than 300,000 deaths this year. Researchers estimate the mortality rate is more than 10 times higher than the flu’s, at 1.1%. (One small upside of the pandemic: It appears the flu vaccine and COVID protocols have successfully minimized the flu outbreak this year.)
- Sore throat and COVID: In most years, a scratchy throat wouldn’t be cause for concern -- you’d assume you caught a cold, or perhaps you were having an allergy attack. But a sore throat is a common symptom of COVID, and it’s hard not to worry when any symptom appears. There are differences among colds, the flu, allergies, and COVID, though, so a sore throat alone doesn’t necessarily mean you need a COVID test.
- Cytokine storm: The idea of a “cytokine storm” was new to most of us until the spring of this year, when scientists realized that some severely ill COVID patients experienced one. The phenomenon existed long before COVID-19 -- it happens when your immune system overreacts and produces an excess of infection-fighting chemicals called cytokines. This can cause a lot of damage to your vital organs and lead to sepsis or even death. As is common with a new disease like COVID-19, researchers are still learning about how common cytokine storms really are in critically ill patients.