Understanding long COVID-19

By The Health News Team | April 26, 2022
Woman experiencing back pain

If you have COVID-19, no matter how severe, the hope is for a quick, full recovery. But what if your symptoms last longer than expected?

Mild to moderate COVID-19 infection typically lasts around 2 weeks, with more severe infections lasting longer. For some people, however, symptoms can persist for months — even after COVID-19 is no longer detected in the body — leaving them wondering whether lingering symptoms could be caused by long COVID-19.

Defining long COVID-19
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines long COVID-19 — sometimes referred to as long-haul or long-term COVID — as a symptom or combination of symptoms that start during or after a COVID-19 infection and persist at least 8 weeks beyond the acute infection.

“Fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain and cough seem to be the most prevalent physical symptoms,” says Dr. Mouhib Naddour, a pulmonologist affiliated with the Burr Heart & Lung Clinic at Sharp Grossmont Hospital and board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, critical care and neurocritical care medicine.

Along with these common bodily symptoms, there are also symptoms affecting the mind, such as anxiety, depression, poor concentration and impaired memory. Other symptoms known to occur with long COVID-19 include weakness, joint pain and muscle aches.

Don’t assume it’s long COVID
Dr. Naddour says that it is important to consider that lingering symptoms may not be entirely due to long COVID-19.

“Long-haul COVID requires an assessment by a medical professional to rule out alternate diagnoses,” says Dr. Naddour. “It is important to first rule out other causes of these symptoms, as well as complications of COVID-19 that can occur later in the disease’s process.”

Dr. Naddour suggests making an appointment with your primary care doctor or a COVID-19 clinic if you suspect you might have long COVID-19. “Your PCP or specialty clinic can assess and diagnose the condition appropriately to determine if it is long-haul COVID-19 or other related conditions,” he says.

Likelihood of long COVID
Research shows that those who experienced longer and more severe episodes of COVID-19, such as patients hospitalized in an intensive care unit (ICU), are at increased risk of developing long-term symptoms. A study published in The Lancet looked at 1,700 patients in Wuhan, China, who were hospitalized with mild to moderate COVID-19. Of these patients, approximately 74% continued to experience one or more symptoms at 6 months, and 49% continued to have symptoms at 12 months.

Along with hospitalization, the length of time symptoms stick around depends on several other factors. Generally, it may take longer to recover if you have preexisting conditions, such as cancer or diabetes.

“Those who’ve had a severe bout of COVID-19 or had additional complications from the disease, like a blood clot or bacterial infection in their lungs, may also experience symptoms for a longer amount of time,” Dr. Naddour says.

Seeking treatment
Dr. Naddour recommends getting vaccinated as the main way to prevent COVID-19 and possible long-term symptoms. But if you are diagnosed with long COVID-19, your care team will manage symptoms with therapies to help improve your daily life.

“Breathing exercises, physical therapy and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation may be useful in patients with respiratory or cardiac symptoms that cannot otherwise be explained,” says Dr. Naddour.

Dr. Naddour notes that although patients may follow up with their PCP first, many patients may need to be referred to specialists for evaluation and management of specific symptoms. The Burr Heart & Lung Clinic and the Sharp Allison deRose Rehabilitation Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital offer COVID-19 recovery programs that specialize in managing symptoms of long COVID.

“Post COVID-19 symptoms can affect a patient’s quality of life,” says Dr. Naddour. “But when detected and treated appropriately, patients can get back to enjoying their lives.”

Learn more about Sharp HealthCare’s long COVID-19 recovery program.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Naddour about long COVID, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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