Apr. 28, 2022

What is Long Covid? A Guide to Symptoms and How to Cope

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"It's the worst fatigue of your life," explained Linda Tomkow, a patient of Northwestern Medicine who battled ongoing covid-19 symptoms. Patients like Tomkow are considered "long haulers" and doctors are continuing to better understand the care needed to help them with Long COVID-19.

Long COVID-19 is defined as a condition where the effects of the virus linger for weeks or months even after the initial illness. These ongoing symptoms can be present even when COVID-19 is no longer detected in the body. At Northwestern Medicine, doctors have set up a Comprehensive COVID-19 Center that specializes in helping patients who have symptoms related to COVID-19 beyond 30 days from the initial onset of illness or the last positive COVID-19 test.

Causes of Long COVID-19

Long COVID-19 research ties the cause of symptoms to inflammation or damage to systems in the body. Help Guide explains, "Even those who weren't hospitalized and only experienced mild coronavirus symptoms may still experience long COVID. Perhaps the most startling research has suggested that up to one-third of COVID-19 survivors are likely to suffer neurological or mental health problems within six months, ranging from mood disorders to dementia or stroke."

Other viral infections can have long-term effects on the body. It's not uncommon. For example, meningitis and glandular fever can trigger chronic fatigue syndrome. The 1918 flu pandemic was linked to inflammation of the brain. The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) even left some patients suffering flu-like symptoms similar to those of long-haul COVID.

Do I Have Long-Term Symptoms from COVID-19?

Doctors continue gaining a better understanding of how COVID-19 affects the different systems in the body. Symptoms may linger or new complications related to the virus can develop. Patients may need to see specialists in multiple areas to get a full picture of how to get help. Some areas include pulmonology, neurology, cardiology, gastroenterology, and more.

If you recognize a combination of the following post-COVID-19 symptoms, you're encouraged to seek help:

  • Persistent fevers or fatigue
  • Neurological symptoms, such as brain fog, headache, dizziness, or insomnia
  • Persistent cough or shortness of breath
  • Cardiovascular conditions, such as myocarditis and arrhythmia
  • Dysautonomia; a disorder of the autonomic nervous system that controls involuntary physical processes such as heart rate, breathing, and bladder function
  • Pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, or clotting issues
  • Kidney damage, which can lead to protein, blood, or albumin in the urine
  • Persistent nausea and diarrhea
  • New prediabetes or diabetes
  • New thyroid disorder
  • Psychological issues like depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and "brain fog"

The impacts of long COVID-19 can impact your ability to work, study, manage basic tasks, engage in social activities, and make everyday decisions. The symptoms can leave people feeling exhausted and aching. According to helpguide.org, "Some people with long COVID feel like their head is clouded or in a fog, making it difficult to do math calculations, for example, or find the right word to say. As a “long hauler”, you may also suffer changes in your mood, most commonly exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." Since so much is still being uncovered about the effects of COVID-19, getting help is important to overcome these issues. 

What Should I Do If I Have Long COVID-19?

Symptoms of long COVID-19 vary from patient to patient. They also resemble many of the common symptoms of COVID-19. That's why it's important to seek help and tailor coping strategies to what you are experiencing. Some common tips for coping include:

  • Get vaccinated. Some long-haulers report that the vaccine helps relieve some symptoms.
  • Avoid reinfection. While out in public, wear a mask. Avoid non-essential travel. Wash your hands frequently. Have hand sanitizer handy when out in the community.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Food choices can impact your mood, boost your energy levels, and support your immune system. Include lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake. Both can negatively impact your immune system and disrupt your sleep.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can irritate and reduce your lung function. Plus, quitting can improve your circulation and breathing.
  • Seek help. Support from others can help beat feelings of fatigue, isolation, and loneliness.
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