COVID seems to be just one of those things—you take every precaution, follow every guideline, and you still get it. That virus sneaks in and wreaks havoc on your body. While most people will recover from their major symptoms within a week or two, the number of fatalities and hospitalizations remains devastating. But not everyone who survives it fully recovers.
Some of those who’ve had COVID have struggled with symptoms that lasted for months. We know these people as “long haulers” who suffer from Long COVID.
What Is Long COVID?
Long COVID is another term for Post-acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). It is when a person infected with COVID shows symptoms well beyond the quarantine window when they are no longer considered contagious.
Health experts have not come up with a single medical definition of long COVID. They just know that it’s a long version of the symptoms of the illness. They do accept that long COVID is real, however. It’s just that two patients can show completely different symptoms.
Doctors can’t be sure how long symptoms will last. Some people may suffer permanent damage, while others may fully recover. For some long COVID sufferers, it is a life-changing condition.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the lengthy list of long COVID symptoms is varied.
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Joint pain
• Chest pain
• Memory, concentration, or sleep problems
• Muscle pain or headache
• Fast or pounding heartbeat
• Loss of smell or taste
• Depression or anxiety
• Dizziness when you stand
Worsened symptoms after physical or mental activities
It appears that fatigue is the most common of these symptoms. With such a wide range of physical and mental symptoms, it is not surprising that health professionals have not agreed on a common definition of long COVID.
Who Suffers From Long COVID?
Available statistics suggest that older people and people with underlying health issues are most at risk for long COVID. However, doctors have reported cases in younger people who have no other medical problems. A study by Imperial College, London in June 2021, reported the following:
“The prevalence of persistent symptoms was higher in women than men… and, conditional on reporting symptoms, risk of persistent symptoms increased linearly with age by 3.5 percentage points per decade of life. Obesity, smoking or vaping, hospitalization, and deprivation were also associated with a higher probability of persistent symptoms…”
Imperial College based the study on a sample of 508,707 people who had had COVID-19. It found that 19.2% suffered from symptom persistence after 12 weeks.
How Does COVID-19 Cause Long COVID?
What makes COVID stick around the body—if it does at all? Researchers are still trying to find that out. Unfortunately, not knowing how COVID-19 causes prolonged symptoms makes it harder to treat and prevent long COVID, but some theories are out there.
• Someone may recover from a bout of COVID-19, but some of the virus remains in the body.
• The virus provokes an overactive immune response. This causes further damage to the body.
• After COVID-19, the immune system does not return to its normal state.
• COVID-19 alters how organs function.
• COVID-19 provokes changes to the body’s metabolism.
• COVID-19 triggers abnormal blood clotting and damages the blood supply system.
These theories make enough sense to the layperson, but one in particular stands out as quite disturbing. Investigators are studying the possibility that COVID-19 can alter the structure of the brain. This would, of course, cause major issues. But as farfetched as this may sound, we wouldn’t put anything past this virus.
Because long COVID is so prevalent, several organizations are researching the illness. The World Health Organization is also looking to coordinate international research.
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
In the United States, Congress provided $1.15 billion for a four-year-long long COVID research program. Known as the PASC Initiative, the NIH is trying to establish the causes of long COVID and what makes someone more prone to it. They’re also looking into what the long-term consequences may be.
The University of Cambridge in England, along with other institutions, is working on long-Covid research as well. “HEAL-COVID is a clinical trial to compare different treatments to determine whether they can improve the longer-term outcomes for patients who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19.” Their website states that 1 in 5 people who had COVID and were discharged from the hospital experience new or worsened symptoms in the three months following.
Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute
This Australian institute’s study focuses on the possible causes of exercise intolerance and persistent fatigue following COVID-19 infection. Similar studies are going on globally.
Help For Long COVID Sufferers
If you think you are suffering from long COVID, speak with your doctor. You may also want to look into Survive Corps.
Its mission is to connect and educate COVID-19 survivors and help them recover as a community: “Survivor Corps is one of the largest and fastest-growing grassroots movements connecting, supporting, educating, motivating, and mobilizing Covid-19 survivors to support all medical, scientific, and academic research, to help stem the tide of this pandemic and assist in the national recovery.” The site has a section devoted to long COVID.
Share Your Experience
If you think you are experiencing long COVID, it is important that you let others know. Don’t suffer in silence. A medical professional can help you deal with your symptoms. Your story may also help medical experts and researchers find answers.
Long COVID has been around only as long as COVID-19, although experts have seen similar problems with other viral infections. Researchers need as much information as possible to learn more about the illness.
We’ve got a long way to go before we can accurately treat and prevent long COVID. The best prevention now is simply not to get it and to get the vaccine. But, even the most vigilant of us can still get it—no one is special. And so we must prepare for the possibility that we may be the next person with long COVID.
The wide range of symptoms that people report suggests that it is not a single illness for which one antidote can be found. It is, rather, a spectrum of post-COVID effects, both physical and mental.