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Are you dealing with a ‘long cold’?

By The Health News Team | December 15, 2023
Woman sick and coughing on the couch

Got a cold that seems to be dragging on? New research suggests COVID-19 may not be the only respiratory infection that causes lingering symptoms.

Much like long COVID-19 — when symptoms persist after a COVID-19 infection has cleared — other acute respiratory infections may have the same affect. Researchers found that colds, flu, pneumonia and other non-COVID respiratory illnesses can also cause a range of long-lasting health complications. In other words, their findings indicate the existence of a “long cold.”

“While long COVID is now a recognized condition affecting millions, there have been few studies comparing long-term symptoms following COVID-19 infection versus other respiratory infections,” says Dr. Abisola Olulade, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.

But what constitutes a long cold? And how worried should we be?

Long-cold symptoms

Researchers looked at data from more than 10,000 adults. Results showed that 22% of people with COVID suffered prolonged symptoms for more than four weeks after the initial infection, as did 22% of those who had an infection that was not COVID.

“A cold will typically resolve within a week to ten days,” Dr. Olulade says. “But some people may experience lingering symptoms that will go on for weeks, months or more.”

There were similarities between the symptoms of those with long COVID and long colds. However, symptoms did appear to differ slightly. Participants with a history of COVID-19 were more likely to experience problems with taste or smell, brain fog, and lightheadedness or dizziness. Those with a long cold were more likely to experience prolonged coughing, stomach pain and diarrhea.

There’s not yet evidence that long cold symptoms have a similar duration to long COVID. Nonetheless, the study’s findings raise the question of whether there are people living with persisting symptoms due to non-COVID respiratory infections who are not receiving a diagnosis and the care they need.

What causes long colds?

It’s not well understood why some people are likely to get long colds or long COVID. Having a severe initial infection appears to be a key driver of risk for long-term symptoms, but it’s not yet clear why.

Preexisting conditions may also play a role. “Underlying health conditions can make you more susceptible to a severe infection, which could mean a greater likelihood of developing a long infection,” Dr. Olulade explains.

Not a new phenomenon

It’s long been known that various viruses can cause symptoms — sometimes mild, sometimes debilitating — to persist for weeks to years after an infection.

Other viral infections, including Ebola and polio, have been linked to long-term health effects. The Epstein-Barr virus — a common type of herpes virus that can cause infectious mononucleosis, commonly known as “mono” — has been linked with multiple sclerosis and myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Ongoing research into the long-term effects of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections is important to get to the root of why some people experience “long infections.” Ultimately, this could help identify the most appropriate form of treatment and care for those affected.

Preventing long-term symptoms and complications

The best way to prevent long infections is to protect yourself from becoming infected in the first place. “It’s important to stay up to date on all vaccinations, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and practice healthy habits,” Dr. Olulade says.

If you notice lingering symptoms of any infection, it’s worth speaking with your health care provider, she adds. While there’s no standardized treatment, there are medications, physical therapy and other treatments available that may help to relieve symptoms.

Learn more about family medicine; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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