When COVID-19 was first diagnosed, we knew very little about it. A year later, we know far more, but questions remain—not least of which is why some people have lingering symptoms long after their acute infection is over, even if their infection was mild or symptom-free. Acute COVID usually lasts an average of two weeks, but some people have symptoms for up to three months.
“Long-COVID” is the name given to the group of symptoms that occur beyond three months, and it appears to be affecting people of all ages, including children and previously healthy people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In late March, a study from UC Davis reported that persistent COVID symptoms affect one in four people who contract the virus, despite the severity of their acute illness. Further, the researchers discovered that about a third of people who did not need to be hospitalized with COVID still developed some long-term symptoms.
Initially, medical providers didn’t know how to spot long-COVID because they didn’t know what to look for. Now, we know the most common symptoms are fatigue and weakness, followed by shortness of breath with minimal exertion. Many patients also report cough, chest tightness, and neurological symptoms mostly described as “brain fog.” The confounding piece for medical providers evaluating these patients is that in most cases, all patient tests come back normal, including blood work, x-rays, heart and lung studies, and brain imaging. Yet, the patients have very concerning symptoms.
Because the medical community shares information regularly, medical providers began recognizing patterns fairly quickly. They were seeing people previously infected with COVID-19 who were now exhibiting an array of symptoms that were not simply a continuation of the symptoms they had during their acute illness. Researchers continue to seek answers about why some people are afflicted and others aren’t.
The hopeful news is that most people do eventually recover, and adequate rest seems to be the key. Rather than pushing past the symptoms and toughing it out, patients who recover the fastest tend to be the ones who listen to their bodies, sleep when they’re tired, and get good nutrition. This may require taking time off from work or school.
My message to those of you experiencing these symptoms is this: Seek medical attention. Ignoring your symptoms will not make them go away. I’ve had patients tell me the fatigue is so overwhelming that when they come home from the grocery store, for example, they simply do not have the energy to unload their groceries. I’ve had patients tell me they thought they were having a heart attack. I’ve had patients describe their headaches as incapacitating. When people deal with these sorts of symptoms day in and day out, it can bring on anxiety and depression, which can make it hard to sleep—and sleep is exactly what they need to heal. If you are having trouble sleeping or are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, call your medical provider.
Finally, my message to everyone is to get vaccinated at the first opportunity. The vaccines are safe and effective, and even if you are in a low-risk group for serious COVID symptoms, you may be at-risk for long-COVID. And the more of us who are vaccinated, the safer everyone is, including the most vulnerable among us.
Talitha Marty is a primary care provider at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. All MCHC health centers accept Medi-Cal/Partnership HealthPlan of California, Medicare, Covered California, and other insurance. Learn more at mchcinc.org.