Many still feel the persistent and chronic effects of COVID-19, a phenomenon often referred to as “long-haulers.” Sharon David, MD, PPG – Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, shares her knowledge of the condition, the cause behind these lingering symptoms and where those suffering from the illness can turn for help.
What does it mean to be a COVID long-hauler?
Many people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but when their symptoms persist and linger for more than four weeks, we diagnose them as a COVID long-hauler.
How prevalent are COVID long-haulers, and who is most affected by it?
Unfortunately, the long-term effects of COVID-19 have become quite prevalent, and we are seeing it more often. We’ve also noticed that long-hauler sufferers typically occur in two subgroups. The first group consists of elderly individuals and patients with other medical comorbidities that have had a severe case of COVID-19. The second subgroup we see more commonly comprises women in their 30s and 40s who had a mild case of COVID-19.
What causes this post-COVID syndrome?
COVID-19, the molecule itself, has a spike protein that sticks out on the surface. This spike protein is what attaches to our cells. Our body recognizes it as a foreign invader when this happens and gears up to attack it. Then, your body goes to war with the virus, and your immune system launches defenses. Afterward, it’s as if a bomb has gone off, and there’s a lot of leftover rubble. The same is true for your body. Even if you’ve won the war and beaten COVID, there’s still leftover rubble or inflammation, which is usually the cause of long-haulers.
What’s the best treatment for those suffering from long-hauler symptoms?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a cure or a pill that will make long-hauler symptoms go away. However, we do have different medications, tools and therapies that we can use to help decrease the effects of those symptoms. One of the biggest, most powerful treatments for long-haulers is time. Many want to rush recovery and feel relief instantly, but you must give it time. In most cases, your body will eventually clear out the inflammation, and you’ll start seeing symptoms resolve.
How do the symptoms of regular COVID-19 differ from those of COVID long-haulers?
Occasionally the symptoms are the same with an acute or early COVID-19 diagnosis. For example, someone might briefly experience cough, chest pain, or shortness of breath, and those symptoms may linger for four weeks or more and turn into long-haulers. For others, their battle with COVID-19 may have been very mild, maybe a little body ache and fatigue, but overall, they felt good. It’s only later when they’re feeling the effects of that leftover inflammation that they may be dealing with brain fog, chest pain, dizziness, lightheadedness or even heart palpitations. So, yes, it can be the same as the acute or early disease, or it could be something different. Either way, speaking with your primary care provider about your symptoms is a good idea. They can help you decide the best plan of care for you.
Are vaccinated individuals less likely to experience long-hauler symptoms?
We know that vaccination decreases someone’s risk for severe COVID-19 and hospitalization. However, at this moment, we’re not seeing any significant trends between someone’s vaccination status and COVID long-haulers. This could change over time as we continue to learn about the long-term effects of COVID and the long-hauler condition.
Are individuals suffering from COVID long-haulers contagious?
No. Individuals suffering from long-haulers are not actively fighting off the coronavirus, so they are not contagious. However, someone who has had COVID-19 made it out of the infectious stage and is now in the long-hauler phase can contract the illness again. They are not immune to the virus just because they’ve already had it.
Where can someone turn for help or if they feel they might be a COVID long-hauler?
There are so many things that can mimic long-haulers and vice versa. And, because the symptoms are so nonspecific, it’s important to rule out anything else before attributing any symptoms to the condition and diagnosing someone as a long-hauler. We recommend people reach out to their physicians for help. Beyond that, if someone has concerns about persisting post-COVID symptoms, they can request a referral to the long-hauler clinic through their pediatrician or primary care provider. Remember, early intervention is essential when recovering from COVID-19 and in treating COVID long-haulers.
To learn more about long-hauler symptoms following COVID-19, see our pre-recorded video sessions featuring Parkview providers, available at parkview.com/LonghaulerMovingForward.