For most of those who become infected, symptoms of COVID-19 will dissipate within several days to a couple weeks, much like cold or flu. But for some the effects linger for months, a condition called “long COVID” or “post-COVID syndrome.”
Up to 30% of persons who contract the virus will have symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of taste or cough, that last well beyond the infectious period, and a new study from the Penn State College of Medicine indicates over half of COVID patients will have some symptoms up to six months after recovery. Even people who don’t present with symptoms early in their infection period may ultimately have long COVID.
The World Health Organization defines long COVID as symptoms that last three or more months after acute infection, explains Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, medical director of Mayo Clinic’s COVID Activity Rehabilitation Program, noting, “long-haul COVID could be a new chronic infection for some folks and be a new baseline.”
It is still being researched how the biochemical changes in the body can affect symptoms, and Vanichkachorn says, “The trouble with long-haul COVID is that it’s so very nebulous, and there are no specific diagnostic criteria yet.”
Persistent symptoms can range from mild to severe, and even debilitating for some.
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“They may have shortness of breath to the point that they need to remain on oxygen for several months after their infection, or not be able to do some of the basic activities of life, like walk across their home, take a shower and so forth,” Vanichkachorn says.
Vanichkachorn, who also works with patients in Mayo’s Post-COVID Care Clinic program, notes there is currently no specific remedy for long COVID, but it is important to reach out to a provider if you are experiencing prolonged symptoms. In addition to physical effects, patients might experience mental health repercussions such as depression, and a clinician can help with developing a comprehensive plan. Support groups are also available,
Long COVID can impact the neurological, cardiovascular and/or respiratory systems, and possible symptom management and relief plans include physical therapy, counseling, pulmonary rehabilitation and medication. The CDC notes adults suffering from long COVID may qualify for disability, and youth may benefit from school accommodations such as extra time on tests or small breaks during the day if their prolonged symptoms include difficulty concentrating or tiredness.
“There is the possibility that we are going to find some very effective treatments for individuals to prevent long-haul COVID and treat patients who are experiencing long-haul COVID,” says Vanichkachorn. “While we may be in an adaptive and management of symptoms scenario right now, things could get a whole lot better in the future.”
Prevention tactics remain essential, including inoculation for all eligible individuals. Currently, persons 12 and over are able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and emergency use authorization for the 5 to 11 age group is expected early November. A study published last month in The Lancet Infectious Diseases shows vaccinated persons who experience breakthrough infection have a 49% lower risk of developing long COVID.
“The best way to prevent getting long-haul COVID is to not get COVID-19,” Vanichkachorn says. “And the best way to navigate COVID-19 is to first get vaccinated and continue all of your hygiene precautions like social distancing, and hand sanitizing and masking.”