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The Lingering Problem of Long COVID
By Donnie Aga, MD
The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be behind us. Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters, the majority of Americans have at least some immunity to the virus, and most of us are able to move forward and start returning to something that resembles pre-pandemic life.
But for some, COVID-19 is far from over because they’re still dealing with the effects of the virus months or even years after first contracting it. The lingering symptoms they’re experiencing are due to what’s being called “long COVID.”
As difficult as the virus itself has been for experts to decipher, long COVID is proving to be as – and possibly more – difficult to understand.
Here's what we currently know about long COVID-19 and what researchers are finding as they dig deeper into the unpredictable condition.
- Most people with long COVID experience ongoing symptoms for four to eight weeks after initially testing positive for the virus, but some people who tested positive in 2020 are still having symptoms nearly two years later.
- Long COVID can affect anyone regardless of age, preexisting conditions, and how severe their symptoms were during their initial illness. Even if they only had mild, cold-like symptoms in the first weeks of their infection, they could develop more severe symptoms later, such as difficulty breathing and fatigue.
- It’s estimated that about 10% of people infected with COVID-19 will experience prolonged symptoms, but some studies suggest that close to half of people who had COVID-19 have lingering symptoms.
- About 20% of children who get COVID-19 experience long COVID, even if they never experienced any symptoms during the initial illness.
- The vast majority of people with long COVID test negative for the virus unless they’re reinfected.
- Long COVID occurs in people no matter which strain of the virus they contracted, but symptoms appear to differ depending on the strain.
- Theories on why long COVID happens include a small amount of the virus remaining in the body and the immune system not correcting itself even though the infection has passed.
- People with long COVID who haven’t already been vaccinated should discuss getting vaccinated with their doctors.
- There’s evidence that getting the COVID-19 vaccine prior to contracting the virus reduces the chances of developing long COVID.
Common Symptoms of Long COVID
Long COVID symptoms are difficult to pinpoint because they vary from person to person. Some of the symptoms aren’t even typical of the virus and weren’t experienced during the initial illness. In some cases, symptoms disappear for a period of time and then reappear without warning or explanation.
According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of long COVID include any of the following:
- Lingering cough
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Change in taste or smell (or lingering lack of taste or smell)
- Chest, stomach, joint, or muscle pain
- Heart palpitations
- Pins-and-needles feeling in extremities
- Frequent fever
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches
- Change in menstrual cycle for women
- Mood changes
- Brain fog (inability to focus, forgetfulness, confusion)
Long COVID Recovery
Medical experts are still researching treatments for long COVID.
People with chronic fatigue are finding that yoga and other exercises are helping them feel more energetic. Those with brain fog and memory issues are discovering that writing things down helps improve their day-to-day functioning. And people with enduring lung problems are finding relief in breathing exercises. But for most people with long COVID, recovery is a lengthy process.
If you’re suffering from long COVID, ask your doctor about ways to manage your symptoms.
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