It Doesn’t Just Go Away: The Aftermath of COVID

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Dave is a 39-year-old web developer who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November 2020. Although he’s considered recovered from the virus, Dave’s life has changed considerably. Once a regular 10K runner and pickleball player, Dave struggles to get out of bed and make his morning coffee. During the day, he experiences unyielding fatigue and can’t seem to clear the fog to keep up with his work.

Stories like these are not rare. As many as 30 percent of COVID-19 patients experience long-term symptoms ranging from loss of smell and painful joint issues to struggling to complete everyday tasks. New studies show these symptoms can last as long as nine months after illness and possibly longer.

Many patients who contract the COVID-19 virus get better within a few weeks, while others take much longer. Experts worldwide are learning more about the long-term health effects some people can’t seem to shake. Doctors and researchers have named health issues that continue more than four weeks after a person contracts the virus, post-COVID conditions or long-COVID.

It’s unclear why some people have such lasting effects while others do not. Some patients may have had preexisting health conditions, while others considered healthy individuals fall prey to severe symptoms after contracting the virus. Scientists are aggressively studying the causes of post-COVID conditions, which include issues such as chronic insomnia and anxiety, among others.
A study by the University of Oxford in April 2021 found that one in three people who have survived COVID-19 are diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within six months of being infected. Often overlooked at first, long-term sufferers are finally getting the attention they need; before that time, providers were trying to save lives of people on ventilators, while also treating their regular patients. Generally, long COVID patients aren’t in life-threatening positions , even though their continuing symptoms can be agonizing to live with on a daily basis.

Anxiety, depression, insomnia and substance misuse are some of the most common mental health issues experienced by patients. Neurological conditions can include headaches, fatigue, cognitive difficulties and stroke, as well as some very rare complications of serious infections.

The same Oxford study included health records of over 230,000 people who had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. After the research was complete, it was estimated that approximately 34 percent of the people studied will be diagnosed with a neurological or mental health disorder following the COVID infection.

The best way to negate post-COVID physical and mental issues is to prevent contracting the virus, especially if comorbidities such as obesity, asthma, hypertension and others are present. Most experts, including the CDC, recommend that people be vaccinated whether or not they had COVID-19. Although some news outlets have reported that a number of patients with long COVID say their symptoms improved after being vaccinated, more studies are needed to determine how the vaccination affects people with continued health conditions.

For those suffering from post-COVID symptoms, especially long-term symptoms, there are ways to manage them. Many people with ongoing health issues are experiencing relief and getting better over time. Persons suffering from long-term COVID-19 symptoms should not be reluctant to get help. Patients with chronic illness who experience or anticipate stigma from their medical provider about long-term symptoms may not reach out for the medical care they need, which can lessen their quality of life. In addition, long-term COVID sufferers should listen to their body as they recover. Recommendations are to get plenty of sleep and rest; return to activities at a moderate pace and keep family informed of symptoms and feelings. If respiratory issues are a problem, be extremely cautious with exercise. Most importantly, don’t be silent.

Medical organizations and researchers continue to study the long-term effects that some COVID patients experience. Ongoing studies can help experts better understand how to treat patients with prolonged symptoms, determine why they get those symptoms and ways to resolve many or all of these health issues.

What can we do if a loved one is suffering long-term COVID effects? Experts say the most important thing is to listen. Be compassionate and aim to understand their feelings and concerns. Some long-term sufferers may find it difficult to talk about how they are feeling for fear of stigma over their continued sickness. Empathy can be great medicine.

If you or someone you know has long-term COVID symptoms, check with your doctor or find a local clinic to help. Post-COVID care centers are opening around the country to address the stubborn effects of this unprecedented virus; Survivor Corps is an excellent resource. Although each program has its own approach, the goal of these facilities is to treat the thousands of patients who still suffer and to get them feeling more like themselves again. ■

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