If you thought COVID-19 was lingering, wait until you meet long COVID.
We’re loosely acquainted.
Got it. But you might not know that it impacts up to 30% of people who get COVID-19. Or that its definition continues to evolve as scientists learn more about it. Before you turn to Google, allow us to break it down with the help of Dr. Hana Akselrod. She’s an assistant professor of infectious diseases who co-founded the COVID-19 recovery clinic at GW Medical Faculty Associates. (And she talked with us about long COVID on this Skimm This episode.)
Long COVID is...
One of several names describing post-COVID conditions and symptoms. Aka 'long-haul COVID,' 'chronic COVID,' and 'post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2' (as scientists call it).
Conditions you could experience four or more weeks after infection. Though the official cutoff point at which COVID becomes long COVID differs according to different doctors and researchers.
Something that can impact millennial women. Dr. Akselrod estimates that of the approximately 120 patients in her clinic, the average age is in the 30s and 40s. She says there are about three times the number of women as men, but that could be because women might be quicker to seek care than men.
An umbrella term for a few different kinds of illnesses. It could be symptoms from infection that just don’t go away as your body continues to fight, a chronic sickness that happens after an initial infection (like an autoimmune disease), or lasting damage (for example, to your lungs).
Something that can impact the nervous system. That’s the link to the compromised sense of smell that many long-haulers mention.
Three main groups of issues. One: You have trouble breathing and struggle to do even small physical tasks. Two: You experience brain fog and have problems with memory and concentration. Three: issues like heart palpitations, chest pain, and dizziness.
Literally hundreds of other things. But most commonly muscle pain and fatigue. The CDC has a long list of symptoms that still isn’t exhaustive, and you can experience multiple, from the minor to the extreme.
Side effects could be...
Damage to your organs. Like your lungs, heart, brain, and kidneys.
Delirium. Spending a long time isolated in the ICU might be a potential cause of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Impact on family and work. If you’re not feeling well for a long time, it could harm your personal and professional relationships.
Factors to consider…
Long COVID can affect those who didn’t have early COVID-19 symptoms. Issues could present themselves later, and/or as a result of your body fighting the disease.
Psychological distress could make things worse. The added long-term stress of unexplained symptoms (and the pandemic, health care costs, etc. etc.) could prolong suffering.
Kids can get long COVID. Research is ongoing, but early numbers show that 2% to 10% of children still had at least one symptom weeks after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The good news: COVID doesn’t seem to be as bad for kids as many had feared. The bad news: The delta variant appears to have a higher overall transmission rate than earlier variants. (Hear more about pediatric COVID on this episode of Skimm This.)
It might disproportionately impact people of color. And the people most impacted could face the steepest barriers to access quality care, from insurance issues to caregiving responsibility and lack of trust in the medical system. According to Dr. Akselrod, the people most impacted by COVID in Washington D.C. (where her clinic is based) have been Black and Hispanic. Read more about systemic racism in health care here.
It's unclear how cannabis might affect your outlook. Studies show that CBD might help reduce lung inflammation caused by infection. But other research suggests that smoking weed could increase your risk of getting a bad case of COVID-19. (Read more about marijuana here.)
Having long symptoms after a respiratory illness isn’t unique to COVID. For example, pneumonia patients can deal with fatigue and shortness of breath weeks after diagnosis.
Pregnant people are more likely to have severe outcomes if they contract COVID. PSA: The CDC says that the vaccine is safe and effective for everyone 12 years of age and older, including pregnant people.
Similar symptoms could also mean...
Another COVID-19 infection. Reinfection is possible, but not yet largely understood. Reminder: Vaccination is key to reducing the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.
Chronic fatigue syndrome. The cause of this extreme tiredness is unknown, but could be triggered by viral infections, stress, hormone imbalances, or immune system issues.
Chronic migraines. They could stem from blood vessel inflammation in or around the brain, infections, or something else.
Autoimmune disease. COVID-19 could have spurred an extreme autoimmune reaction, where rogue COVID-19 autoantibodies targeted more than the virus. Thing to know: Women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders during their lifetimes, and have stronger immune responses. (More about that here.)
If you think you have long COVID, you should…
Talk to a doctor. If you’re dealing with lightheadedness and fatigue, a physician can determine whether you have something like POTS (stands for “postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome”), a disorder involving blood pressure instability that’s been on the rise since the onset of COVID-19, according to Dr. Akselrod. If you have digestive concerns, you could find a nutritionist to help you adjust the way you eat to relieve those symptoms. For brain fog and other similar concerns, consider talking to a neurologist.
Know that every case is unique. We didn’t tell you all of the above to scare you. It’s there to arm you with info and to emphasize that everyone reacts differently to COVID-19.
Consider treatment. Research is in the works on more treatments for symptoms of long COVID. For example, emerging studies show that some antidepressants could help reduce inflammation and fatigue in COVID patients.
Review your medical coverage. If you have insurance, COVID-19 vaccines and diagnostic tests should be covered. But treatment for COVID might not be, as a number of private insurers that had waived out-of-pocket costs are now starting to require them again. Note: Medical bills can vary widely depending on deductible amount, covered benefits, and what specific symptom you’re getting treated for.
Get vaccinated if you haven’t. A recent study showed that vaccinated people who get infected are 50% less likely to get long COVID than unvaccinated people who get the virus. And data shows that breakthrough cases are highly unlikely to begin with: An estimated one in every 5,000-to-10,000 vaccinated people get breakthrough infections.
There are plenty of unknowns out there, but this is certain: You know your body best. So if you’ve had COVID-19 and are still feeling out of breath, foggy, heart-racey, or otherwise unwell, it’s time to talk to your doctor. The good news: Dr. Akselrod says that in her experience, most long COVID patients “do overwhelmingly get better.”
theSkimm consulted with Dr. Hana Akselrod for this guide.
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