What is Long COVID?
Most individuals with COVID-19 infection feel better within a week or two of their first symptoms and make a complete recovery within 12 weeks. Long COVID, also referred to as post COVID-19 syndrome, is when individuals continue to experience symptoms of COVID-19 and do not completely recover for several weeks or months after the initial onset of their symptoms.
COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease 2019. It is a respiratory disease caused by a virus belonging to the Coronavirus family known as SARS-CoV-2 or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2. COVID-19 is transmitted when respiratory droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected individual are inhaled by a healthy individual or when surfaces or objects with droplets of the infected person are touched by a healthy person and the person then touches his/her eyes, nose, or mouth.
Studies indicate that about 10 to 20 percent of individuals infected with COVID may go on to develop symptoms that can be diagnosed as long COVID. Although the exact numbers of those living with the condition are uncertain, it is believed that more than 17 million people across the WHO European Region may have experienced it during the first two years of the pandemic (2020/2021).
Key Features of Long Covid that You Should Know
- Long COVID occurs more commonly in individuals who had serious a COVID-19 illness, but anyone who has been infected with SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 can experience it.
- Long COVID can include a wide range of ongoing health issues; these problems can last weeks, months, or even years.
- Individuals who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 and become infected may have a higher risk of developing Long COVID compared to individuals who have been vaccinated.
- Individuals can be reinfected with SARS-CoV-2 multiple times. Each time an individual is infected or reinfected with SARS-CoV-2, they have a higher risk of developing Long COVID.
- Although most individuals with Long COVID have evidence of infection or COVID-19 illness, in some instances, an individual with Long COVID may not have tested positive for the virus or known they were infected.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its partners are working to understand more about who experiences Long COVID and why, including whether groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 are at higher risk.
Causes of Long COVID
Long COVID is a new condition that is still being studied and researchers are not certain what causes the prolonged effects of COVID-19, but some likely causes of long COVID may include:
- Relapse or reinfection of the virus
- Inflammation or a reaction from the immune system
- A reduced or lack of response from the immune system
- Post-traumatic stress
- Deconditioning, which is a change in physical function due to inactivity or bed rest
Some research shows that the lingering issues connected with long COVID-19 may be due to injury to multiple organs, including the brain, heart, and lungs. COVID-19 may also cause long-lasting changes to the immune system, which can impact these organs. These changes, especially in the lungs, may last longer than the time it takes for the body to get rid of the virus. Moreover, research from the National Institute for Health Research indicates the possibility that the symptoms that individuals describe may be a result of a number of different syndromes. These could include post-COVID-19 syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome, and post-intensive care syndrome. Some individuals may be experiencing more than one syndrome at the same time.
Symptoms of Long COVID
Long COVID has been reported to cause over 200 different symptoms, which can significantly impact the everyday functioning of an individual. The most common symptoms of long COVID include:
General Symptoms (Not a Comprehensive List)
- Fatigue or tiredness
Respiratory and Heart Symptoms
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations (fast-beating or pounding heart)
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
- Sleep problems
- Changes in taste or smell
- Pins-and-needles sensation
- Depression or anxiety
- Stomach pain
- Bowel incontinence
- Joint or muscle pain
- Changes in menstrual cycles
- Feeling hot and cold
- Heavy arms or legs
- Skin rashes
- Hair loss
Diagnosis of Long COVID
There is no specific test that could establish that your condition or symptoms are due to Long COVID. Your physician considers a diagnosis of Long COVID based on your medical history, including if you had a diagnosis of COVID-19 either by a positive test or by exposure or symptoms, as well as conducting a health examination to check:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate and rhythm
- Lung and breathing function
In addition, your doctor may also run various tests to rule out any other potential causes of the symptoms. These tests may include:
- Blood tests to check blood count, iron levels, electrolytes, and the normal functioning of various organs, such as the kidney, liver, and heart
- Chest X-ray
- Urine test
- An electrocardiogram, to look for heart problems
Management of Long COVID
While there is not one single medication or treatment that is employed to treat the overall condition of Long COVID, there are treatments that may assist to alleviate some of the symptoms of it. Everyone’s experience is different, so individuals should seek care from their healthcare provider who can come up with a customized medical management plan to help improve their symptoms and quality of life.
The best way to prevent long COVID is to restrict the spread of COVID-19 infection and get vaccinated as early as you can. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older take the COVID-19 vaccine and everyone takes boosters when they are eligible. Vaccines are one of the safest and most effective ways of limiting and preventing the spread of the virus. Other ways of limiting and preventing infection include:
- Wearing well-fitted masks
- Cleaning hands regularly with soap and water or with alcohol-based sanitizer
- Ensuring indoor spaces are well ventilated
- Staying at least 6 feet away from other people when you are out in public
- Avoiding very crowded places
- Eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and having adequate sleep
- Refraining from smoking and other substances that may weaken your immune system