Since the onset of the pandemic, millions of Americans have contracted COVID-19, and many have recovered. But nearly one in five adults are experiencing symptoms months after infection, in what is being called Long COVID.
While many people who contracted the virus had mild to moderate cold or flu-like symptoms, others have developed cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, pulmonary and even neurological problems. No single explanation or even clear definition can be applied to patients who feel the long-term effects of the virus, but for those whose symptoms are still persisting, it has completely uprooted their lives.
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“I got COVID back in mid-2020 when it was really rearing its head,” said Theresa Samatia, a stay-at-home mother of two in New Jersey. “I immediately lost my taste and sense of smell and knew it was bad. It’s been over two years and I still really can’t taste anything I eat. My doctor thinks it’s long COVID.”
Anne Claire Owens, a marketing assistant in Chicago, said she contracted COVID in December of 2021 and struggles with extreme exhaustion almost every day. “I can get a great night’s sleep, go in for work and after one hour feel like I need another full night’s sleep. It’s so frustrating I could cry some days,” she said.
What is Long COVID?
There’s currently no clear, concise definition of long COVID, but the World Health Organization has defined it as a “post COVID-19 condition” with “coronavirus symptoms that persist or return three months after a person becomes ill from infection.” The symptoms and effects also last for at least two months and cannot be medically explained by another diagnosis.
“Currently the most commonly accepted method for diagnosing long COVID is by clinical history,” said Dr. Soumi Eachempati, co-founder and CEO of CLEARED4 and former professor of surgery and public health at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Someone who is deemed to have long COVID usually has had documented COVID and symptoms after the initial attack that persisted past three months.”
Who is at higher risk of contracting long COVID?
Current data suggests that individuals who are unvaccinated, had severe cases of COVID or anyone with baseline medical problems are at a higher risk of developing long COVID.
“I can get a great night’s sleep, go in for work and after one hour feel like I need another full night’s sleep. It’s so frustrating I could cry some days.”
Dr. Monique May who is also a Medical Advisor for Aeroflow Sleep says more research is needed to fully determine the most vulnerable populations, but certain groups are already emerging as more susceptible. “People who have a high level of the virus in the blood early in the infection, type 2 diabetes, or certain antibodies that attack normal body tissues may be at higher risk for long COVID,” she said.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms can be extremely variable and according to Dr. Eachempati, are by organ system. “Generalized complaints like dizziness, aches, fatigue, rashes, or fever may be the most common symptoms,” he said. “The most difficult to pinpoint include neurological symptoms like difficulty concentrating, brain fog, headaches, needle and pin sensations, or alterations in smell or taste. Digestive symptoms such as diarrhea and stomach pain are less common.”
Other symptoms include:
-Shortness of breath
-Heart palpitations or a fast rhythm
-Loss of smell or taste
What you should know if you’ve had COVID or never had COVID.
While it’s impossible for experts to say that individuals who have had multiple cases of COVID are more likely to develop long COVID, they agree that taking charge of your overall health is key to keeping yourself safe. Dr. May recommends:
Get fully vaccinated and get all recommended boosters
Get an annual flu shot
Exercise regularly, get adequate and restful sleep, and eat at least 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables.
Continue to social distance and avoid crowded indoor spaces.
Wear masks when indoors or around others.
Avoid contact with obviously ill individuals.
Wash your hands often with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
Avoid touching your face, especially your nose and mouth
Due to the newness of the virus and limited research, remaining vigilant and aware of your body and any abnormalities is key to early detection and ultimately prevention of severe illness.
Dr. May also recommends consulting with your doctor if you’re concerned you’re at risk for developing long COVID. “Ask if it is possible to be referred to a specialist or a medical center that treats COVID patients,” she said. “Ask to be considered for research studies looking at long COVID. If you feel that your doctor is not listening to you or is not taking your concerns seriously, find another doctor with whom you can partner in your health care.”
Does vaccination help prevent long COVID?
It might. While research in this field is also limited, we know that vaccination can help reduce the risk of contracting COVID, therefore, getting vaccinated can also limit your risk of developing long COVID.
“It may decrease the likelihood of the original case occurring and also its severity,” said Dr. Eachempati. “This latter reason may hinder the development of long COVID which tends to occur sometimes, but not always, in the more severe COVID cases.”
What is being done, and how are doctors preparing for a future with long COVID patients?
While long COVID is a relatively new condition, some research and funding has already begun. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health was allocated $1.15 billion in funding to support research into the long-term effects of COVID. The study hopes to determine the underlying biological causes and how to best treat and prevent long Covid. Dr. Eachempati says the condition already has an approved International Classification of Diseases code.
“So it has an official diagnosis,” he said. “Scientists are already thinking that certain blood tests could be diagnostic tests that could be valuable for long COVID.”
And for doctors who are seeing more and more long COVID patients, navigating an already burdened and exhausted health care system can be daunting, but as more time passes more answers will emerge. And with more answers comes more ways to solve and treat long COVID patients.
Dr. May says that long COVID will very likely be recognized as a chronic disease in its own right, “Ongoing research, as well as both improved recognition and accurate reporting of symptoms will play very important roles in the management of long COVID,” she said.
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