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What Are ‘Long-Haul’ COVID Symptoms?

05/14/2021

With more than 32 million reported COVID-19 cases, nearly 10 percent of the United States population has suffered from the viral illness that has impacted life over the last 17 months.

While many people who get COVID-19 recover within a few weeks, some will suffer chronic damage to their lungs, heart, kidneys or brain. There is also a portion of the population that deals with post-COVID-19 syndrome, a new term used to describe patients who live with lasting symptoms from the coronavirus.

This syndrome has impacted millions more Americans long after their initial diagnosis. To learn more about this new medical problem, we explored what causes these long-term symptoms, who is most affected and what the physical effects look like in post-COVID-19 patients.

 

Who are COVID-19 long-haulers?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially named this syndrome as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19. Unofficially, you will often see it called long COVID-19 or long-term COVID-19. People living with these symptoms are sometimes referred to as COVID-19 long-haulers.

These patients have recovered from COVID-19 in the sense they have tested negative and can’t spread the virus to others. However, they still have symptoms that are either continuous or arise weeks or months after initially recovering. 

Medical experts estimate about 10 percent of COVID-19 patients experienced prolonged symptoms, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Long haulers syndrome from COVID-19 isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, Lyme disease can also cause lasting symptoms long after the initial infection.

Data shows post-COVID-19 syndrome can happen to anyone infected by the coronavirus regardless of the initial severity. Many of these patients are young, healthy people who initially experienced mild or moderate illness. Some people were even unaffected by the virus at first, only to come down with future symptoms months later.

One study of more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients revealed those who had more than five symptoms in the first week had a greater chance of experiencing long-term effects. Age, body mass index (BMI) and gender (female) are also risk factors for long haulers.

The term “long haulers” may be misleading due to its association with long-term, life-altering symptoms. Researchers are unclear just how long these symptoms can last. At least 2 percent of patients in the study had symptoms lasting more than 12 weeks. More studies are needed to determine the longevity. In the meantime, patients shouldn’t lose hope of making a full recovery.

 

Long-term COVID-19 symptoms

One of the odd parts about long-term COVID symptoms is how different symptoms may appear compared to the original infection. For example, you may experience fatigue and body aches during an active COVID-19 infection only to develop breathing problems weeks or months later.

While symptoms vary, most long-term COVID-19 symptoms include shortness of breath in which patients struggle with typical everyday activities. In some cases, pulmonary issues cause these symptoms. However, some patients suffer from deconditioning, a physical or physiological decline in function. Deconditioning can happen after any injury or illness that results in a period of inactivity. With COVID-19 patients, living a sedentary lifestyle during the illness can lead to functional losses.

Beyond that, many of the common symptoms include persistent coughing, continued fatigue, body aches and joint pain, shortness of breath when exercising, issues sleeping and headaches. Patients also reported experiencing loss of taste and smell and brain fog, two symptoms that can be especially frustrating.

Brain fog isn’t a medical condition, rather a term used to describe not being able to think clearly. The belief is brain fog occurs as a secondary symptom of many of the other complications COVID-19 patients experience. For example, if you’re fatigued and have trouble sleeping, you will struggle to think clearly and focus on otherwise simple tasks.

A study in the British Medical Journal found 70 percent of people with a low risk of COVID-19 mortality had impairments in one or more organs four months after their initial symptoms.

COVID-19 can also cause myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). ME/CFS is also a long-term side effect of other contagious diseases such as mononucleosis and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

 

 

Will the vaccine help?

It’s unclear how the COVID-19 vaccine is helping patients with long-lasting symptoms, but early research suggests positive results. 

In May, the Yale School of Medicine began a study to research long-haul symptoms. Patient feedback and initial research determined as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of long haulers who received the COVID-19 vaccine saw a decrease in symptoms. 

Thus far, researchers have several possible explanations: vaccines help reset the immune system or boost the immune system in fighting off leftover COVID-19 virus in the body.

Once vaccinated, your body creates antibodies and produces an immune system response that can reduce inflammation responsible for causing long-term symptoms. The vaccine may also keep your immune system from going into overdrive, which is another possible explanation for long symptoms.

Even without the vaccine having an effect, many experts remain confident long haulers will eventually recover. The bigger question is the timeline. Lung recovery could take months to return to normal.

Either way, don’t ignore loss of smell, depression, anxiety or insomnia, or write these off as unimportant. Any symptom that interferes with your daily life is worth a call to your primary care physician, who can help you address these problems and improve your quality of life.

 

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