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Coping with Long Covid — What You Need to Know

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If you or a loved one contracted the coronavirus and recovered from COVID-19 in the past year, it’s possible that you’re still not feeling 100% back to normal. COVID can affect your physical and mental health in ways that scientists are still discovering. The lingering symptoms of the disease have been labeled long COVID, post-COVID-19 syndrome, long-haul COVID, or long-tail COVID. The effects of long COVID can manifest as physical symptoms and/or mental health issues. Please continue reading to learn more about the long-term complications of COVID-19. 

Is it possible to have lingering symptoms of COVID-19?

Yes, it’s possible to have long-term symptoms from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). You can continue to feel unwell even after you’ve recovered from the initial illness. 

Many patients who get COVID-19 recover fully within a few weeks. But some people — even those who were previously healthy, had a mild version of the disease, and were not hospitalized — can experience a more prolonged illness. Such COVID survivors are sometimes called COVID "long haulers." 

A person is considered a COVID long hauler if their symptoms have persisted for more than four weeks after infection with the COVID-19 virus.

Who is at risk of long COVID?

In general, older individuals and patients who have serious pre-existing medical conditions are at the highest risk of experiencing long COVID. With that said, even young, healthy people can continue to feel unwell for weeks or months after the infection.

How common is long COVID?

The situation is evolving and there are wildly different estimates from different sources. It is believed that lingering symptoms are present in 10% to 60% of COVID-19 patients. In particular, research suggests that up to a third of COVID survivors could suffer from mental health and neurological problems for six months or more. 

If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 and think that are experiencing long COVID, it’s important not to let the numbers alarm you. The cause of many long COVID symptoms is hard to pinpoint. For example, some of the mental health symptoms could well be due to the stress, trauma, upheaval, isolation, and grief associated with the pandemic, rather than the coronavirus itself. 

With the pandemic continuing to affect normal life as we speak, new variants, an escalating death toll, quarantines, lockdowns, and innumerable hardships, the toll on everyone’s mental health has been immense. This has led to skyrocketing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, which can trigger physical symptoms as well.

Nonetheless, whether your symptoms are from the viral infection, from long COVID, or the general aftereffects of the pandemic, your suffering is real. It’s important to seek the proper treatment from medical professionals as well as support groups until you regain your health.

What are some symptoms of COVID-19 long haulers?

COVID long haulers can experience long-term symptoms that manifest as physical health issues and/or mental health problems. This can include both non-specific and specific symptoms such as high blood pressure, fast heart rate, muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, fatigue after doing usual household chores, inability to work, difficulty concentrating, and more. 

The most common symptoms of long COVID that can persist even after you fully recover from the acute illness include: 

Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Intermittent low-grade fever
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Joint pain
  • Rash
  • Muscle aches or weakness
  • Fast heartbeat or palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Sleep problems
  • Hair loss

Neurological or Mental Symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty thinking (brain fog)
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Mood changes
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)

What are some of the potential long-term effects of COVID-19?

Fatigue and Mood Changes

Some of the most common symptoms of long COVID are fatigue and mood changes. These health issues could be from the virus itself or from the trauma of surviving COVID-19. In particular, people who had severe COVID, were hospitalized in an intensive care unit, and needed a ventilator to breathe can go on to develop anxiety, depression, lingering mood changes, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)

Because the long-term outcomes of COVID are still unknown, scientists have been studying at the long-term effects of related viruses such as the one that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Many individuals who had SARS were left with a condition called chronic fatigue syndrome. This is a disorder in which there is extreme fatigue, made worse by any kind of activity but not improved with rest. Experts believe that some people who had COVID-19 may develop chronic fatigue syndrome.

COVID-19 Associated Organ Damage

COVID-19 has been called a respiratory disease that mainly affects the lungs. However, evidence is emerging that it can cause damage to other vital organs such as the brain, heart, and kidneys. This organ damage can linger in the form of long COVID with lasting health complications for long haulers, such as breathing problems, heart complications, stroke, chronic kidney impairment, multisystem inflammation, and Guillain-Barre syndrome (a neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis). 

Blood Clots and Blood Vessel Issues

Infection with the COVID-19 virus can increase blood clot formation. Large blood clots are associated with an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. Indeed, scientists believe that much of the damage to the heart caused by COVID-19 stems from tiny clots in the heart muscle. 

Blood vessels in other organs, such as the lungs, liver, kidneys, and legs, can also be affected in the aftermath of COVID-19. Leaky blood vessels in patients with long COVID can lead to continuing health problems.

How long can long COVID-19 symptoms last?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say how long symptoms of COVID can last because much is still unknown about this disease and its effect on the immune system and other organs. Research is ongoing and we will know more as further evidence emerges. 

The most important thing if you have long COVID is to seek medical care for managing symptoms. Experts recommend that long haulers should be monitored closely after recovery from COVID-19 to see how their organs are functioning.

You should know that everybody is different. For some people, long COVID manifests in the lungs with breathing problems, for others with neurological issues like brain fog. So, don’t ignore or downplay your symptoms. If you are a COVID long hauler and are still experiencing symptoms, do not hesitate to seek help from medical professionals, family members, and long COVID support groups. 

Give your doctors as much information as possible, because your unique experience with long COVID could shape what we know about this disease and help with the management of other patients. At the present time, physicians are still learning from patients’ experiences about COVID recovery and the long-term health effects of long COVID.


References:

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351#