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What Is Long COVID—and Are You at Risk?

Perhaps you’ve had a family member, friend, or colleague who’s had COVID-19, or maybe you’ve had it yourself. Did the symptoms go away after a couple of weeks? Or were there symptoms that seemed to linger and affect daily living?

Up to 30% of people who have had COVID-19 are experiencing what’s now called Post Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2, or PASC for short. You may also have heard it referred to as long COVID or COVID long haulers syndrome.

The most common symptoms of PASC include the following, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

·         Fatigue. Sometimes, the fatigue is bad enough to stop the person from working or carrying out their daily routine for months on end.

·         Shortness of breath.

·         Cough.

·         Joint pain.

·         Chest pain.

Other symptoms include:

·         Brain fog, used to describe problems with thinking and concentration.

·         Depression.

·         Muscle pain.

·         Headache.

·         Fast-beating heart (also called tachycardia) and heart palpitations.

Although these are the most common symptoms associated with long COVID, there are many other potential symptoms. A survey done by the group Survivor Corps in July tracked 50 symptoms found in COVID long haulers; their survey includes trouble sleeping, anxiety, dizziness, continued loss of smell, and heartburn, among other symptoms.

So far, there is not any predictability regarding who will experience PASC. It is seen in both people who had mild and severe COVID, says Dr. Amy Mullins, medical director for quality and science for the American Academy of Family Physicians. Older adults and those with serious medical conditions appear somewhat more vulnerable to long COVID, but even young, healthy people are experiencing the lingering symptoms, Dr. Mullins says.

As for the timeline on how long PASC lasts, that is also unclear. Some people have had symptoms lasting a few weeks beyond having the virus in its infectious form; yet others were initially sick last March and continue to struggle with long COVID. “Since we are only slightly over a year since we saw our first case in the United States, it will take some time and research to see what the long term effects of COVID-19 will be,” Dr. Mullins says.

Federal research is underway to help pinpoint the causes of long COVID, according to a late February announcement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Although the answer is yet unclear, it could be that the virus remains active in the body in some small way, according to UC Davis. Another theory is that even though the infection has passed, the immune systems of those who have it continue to overreact.

There are no standard treatments yet for long COVID because the symptoms vary so widely. Doctors often are treating symptoms to help patients better cope. There also are post-COVID care clinics emerging throughout the U.S. to help patients. Here is a link to a list of post-COVID care clinics made by Survivor Corps.

Long COVID: 6 Tips on How to Cope

Although there are more questions than answers at this point regarding long COVID, there are still a few tips to help you better manage it:

1. Track your symptoms and see how they are changing. This can be valuable information when talking to your doctors. Take notes regarding symptoms on paper or electronically every day or every week.

2. Seek medical care if you haven’t already. Just because there is no standard treatment doesn’t mean there is no relief at all. If you don’t already have a family physician, this is the time to find one, Dr. Mullins advises. “A family physician can help you as you recover from COVID-19, as well as listen to you and determine, together, how best to treat specific symptoms. Also, a family physician is someone who can take care of all your preventive, chronic and acute health care needs.”

If you don’t believe the doctor you are seeing is taking your concerns about long COVID seriously, it’s time to seek out a new doctor. If you live near a post-COVID care clinic, consider seeking help there.

3. Connect with others. “Despite physical distance requirements, make it a priority to virtually connect with family and friends to stay in touch and feel less isolated during the pandemic,” Dr. Mullins advises. Share your long COVID experience with loved ones who you know will be supportive.

4. Talk with others who also are experiencing long COVID/PASC. There are online support networks for those with long COVID, and it can be invaluable to trade stories. Survivor Corps has an active Facebook network; another such group on Facebook is called COVID-19 Long Haulers Support.

5. Talk to your doctor about your specific vaccine and immunity questions. Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine if you have long COVID? How long are you immune against COVID-19 after having the virus? The answers continue to evolve. You also will find varied (and not necessarily accurate) answers on social media. Ask your doctor for guidance.

6. Aim for clean living. A healthy diet, exercise (if you can tolerate it and your doctor says it’s OK), breathing exercises, and sleep (as restful as you can) all can go a long way toward helping you manage life with long COVID better. Do your best to steer clear of the usual unhealthy no-nos such as alcohol and too much sugar.

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