According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40% of adults in the United States have reported having COVID-19 in the past. Most people who contract COVID-19 recover from the virus within a few days or weeks. However, some people who contract COVID-19 suffer from symptoms long after their original infection. The CDC estimates that roughly 19% of people who contract COVID-19 end up experiencing symptoms of long COVID.
With almost one in five people reporting symptoms long after their COVID-19 infection, it’s important to understand what long COVID is and what steps you can take if you or someone you love may be suffering from it.
What is long COVID exactly? How do you know if you have it and what can you do about it? With almost one in five people reporting symptoms long after their COVID-19 infection, it’s important to understand what long COVID is and what steps you can take if you or someone you love may be suffering from it.
Defining Long COVID
Long COVID is a condition that occurs when people who have been infected with COVID-19 experience long-term effects from their infection. These effects include a wide range of health problems that can last weeks, months or even longer. Most people with COVID-19 get better within a few days or weeks, so at least four weeks after infection is the start of when post-COVID conditions can be diagnosed. People call post-COVID conditions by many names including long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID-19, chronic COVID and more.
Symptoms of Long COVID
One aspect that makes long COVID difficult to diagnose is that the symptoms vary greatly from person to person. If you have new or worsening symptoms 4-12 weeks after having COVID-19, you may be experiencing long COVID. Here are some of the most reported symptoms:
- Altered sense of taste or smell, including no sense of taste or smell, or taste and smells that seem “wrong”
- Tiredness or fatigue that interferes with daily life
- Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activity
- Respiratory symptoms such as an on going cough or trouble catching your breath
- Cardiac symptoms including chest pain, palpitations, lightheadedness, dizziness, heart racing or skipping beats
- Neurological symptoms such as brain fog, trouble focusing, memory problems, headaches or blurry vision
- Mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression or insomnia
- Digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea or abdominal pain
- Joint or muscle pain
- Changes in your menstrual cycle
This is a list of symptoms compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the CDC, but it’s not totally complete. Remember, long COVID affects everyone differently, so not everyone will have the same symptoms.
What to Do About It
Because of the range of symptoms reported, it can be hard to recognize when you have long COVID. There is no specific test to diagnose long COVID either, so it can be hard for your health care provider to diagnose. Here are some tips if you think you or a loved one might be suffering from long COVID:
- If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, or any additional unexplained symptoms four weeks after your COVID-19 infection, talk to your health care provider.
- Your health care provider will consider a diagnosis based on your health history, as well as a health examination.
- Your health care provider can complete routine blood tests, chest x-rays and electrocardiograms, for example, but some people may have normal results and can continue to have symptoms that aren’t explained by tests.
- When you talk to your health care provider, be prepared. Preparation can make all the difference in getting the right diagnosis and treatment.
- The CDC offers tips for how to prepare for your appointment for long COVID, including what to do before, during and after the appointment including things such as listing your health history before you go, making a list of your questions and concerns, knowing what the follow-up will be and more. They also provide a printable checklist to help you prepare.
- Living with long COVID can be hard, especially when you don’t get immediate answers or solutions. But you and your provider can come up with a personalized medical management plan that can improve your symptoms and quality of life.
How to Reduce Your Risk for Long COVID
You can’t prevent long COVID unless you don’t get COVID-19. Anyone who is infected with COVID-19 can develop post-COVID conditions. However, studies show that certain groups of people are more likely to report having it and there are ways to reduce your risk:
- People who have experienced more severe COVID-19 illness, especially those who were hospitalized, are more likely to develop long COVID.
- People who have an underlying health condition prior to COVID-19 infection are also at greater risk.
- People who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 are more likely to develop long COVID.
The best way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated and to stay up to date with the latest vaccines and boosters being offered, as well as keeping up with safety measures such as hand-washing and masking. Research suggests that people who are vaccinated but experience a breakthrough infection are less likely to report post-COVID conditions, compared to unvaccinated people. For more information on immunizations and vaccinations, or if you’re concerned about getting one, check out Immunizations: Get the Information You Need to Stay Healthy.
Resources Available to Help
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a lot of information related to long COVID, including a detailed graph of possible symptoms, ways to participate in long COVID clinical studies, as well as a page full of additional resources.
VA offers this fact sheet for Veterans, which includes a detailed symptom checklist, helpful Q&As, and more. In terms of treatment, VA uses a Whole Health System Approach to Long COVID, which is a patient-centered approach to treating long COVID focused on what is most important to you.
As of 2021, long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website for guidance and details.
Long COVID can affect anyone who has been infected with COVID-19. If you’re still experiencing symptoms long after your infection, be sure to reach out to your health care provider and begin a treatment plan that can help.