As debilitating as it can be to contract COVID, many people are just as concerned about experiencing long COVID symptoms. In fact, according to the CDC, nearly one in five Americans who have been infected with the virus still have long COVID.
Here’s what we know so far about treatment and the latest research updates.
Signs You Have Long COVID
Long COVID is still a mysterious condition following COVID infection that spans more than 100 different symptoms. This is what makes it so challenging to diagnose and treat. Some of the more common symptoms include: Brain fog, extreme fatigue, racing heart, ringing in the ears, profound weakness, intestinal upset like diarrhea and difficulty breathing, among others, Dr. William Li, MD, doctor, researcher and founder of Angiogenesis Foundation, says.
A range of physical and mental symptoms are common with COVID-19 infection, and can occur during or in some cases shortly after the infection. But when these symptoms persist generally longer than three months this is called long COVID, Dr. Erica Johnson, MD, chair of the infectious disease board at the American Board of Internal Medicine, explains. Again, a wide range of symptoms occur with long COVID, but common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, alterations in sleep, and difficulty concentrating.
When You Can Expect Symptoms To Pass
Long COVID doesn’t develop at the same time for each individual, which makes it harder to determine when it will pass. Initially, long COVID symptoms were thought to arise a month after fully recovering from the acute infection. However, now we are also seeing patients who never fully recover from their infection and experience their symptoms worsening over time, Dr. Li explains.
The tail end of long COVID is still unknown. We are seeing it gradually dissipate for some patients after about a year. However, there are some patients who have had long COVID since 2020 who are still carrying on with their symptoms, Dr. Li adds. The end of Long COVID is still a big question for the medical community.
What Do We Know About Long COVID Treatment?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the critical effort of researchers is to understand how coronavirus damages the body. These insights help us understand the acute infection and the effects of long COVID as well.
In long COVID, the virus appears to damage the small blood vessels (microangiopathy), some nerves (nerves that control the brain, heart, gut, hearing, etc) and the infection appears to trigger autoimmune reactions (this is where your own antibodies attack your healthy cells leading to chronic inflammation), Dr. Li states.
Some recent findings have included researchers using sophisticated imaging to document the damage found in blood vessels. This is incredibly important as it helps us understand the damage the coronavirus does to the body.
Another study found 20 protein markers that appear to predict who might go on to develop long COVID. This is still a very early research finding that requires more study, but could prove to be very promising to help understand the disease, Dr. Li adds.
Better understanding long COVID—who develops it and why, how long symptoms persist, how to better characterize it and how to best manage the symptoms—are all areas of active research right now and will continue to be. Currently, treatment is focused on managing the specific symptoms a person is presenting with, Dr. Johnson explains.
While there is still more research to be conducted in this area, there are things you can do if you have symptoms. And your approach to treatment will depend on the symptoms you experience.
“The best thing to do is to talk to your doctor about your symptoms so that you can be evaluated,” says Dr. Johnson. “Many of the symptoms people experience after COVID are common symptoms that people experience for a variety of other reasons, and so the evaluation can be helpful in being certain that your symptoms are due to long COVID, and not some other cause. [Evaluation is also] helpful to identify what treatment may help in reducing your symptoms and the impact they could be having on work, school, life and your wellbeing in general.”
How To Reduce Your Chances of Developing Long COVID
The best thing to do is to remain up to date on vaccination.
Most patients who experience mild COVID-19 will recover quickly and are less likely to experience prolonged physical and mental symptoms after infection, Dr. Johnson states. Staying up to date with vaccination helps ensure that even if you do develop an infection, it is more likely to be a mild illness.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Nearly One in Five American Adults Who Have Had COVID-19 Still Have “Long COVID”
Dr. Erica Johnson, MD, Chair of the Infectious Disease Board at the American Board of Internal Medicine
eBioMedicine: “Plasma proteomic signature predicts who will get persistent symptoms following SARS-CoV-2 infection”