- Estimates suggest as many as 23 million Americans may be currently impacted by Long COVID symptoms, with projections expected to rise as more SARS-CoV-2 variants arise.
- It can be difficult for healthcare experts to diagnose Long COVID, as there are more than 15 unique lingering symptoms that may indicate an initial infection has triggered long-haul side effects.
- A majority of individuals have been diagnosed with Long COVID if symptoms persist past a period of four weeks, according to experts.
- In this article, you'll learn: How to determine if you're experiencing Long COVID; Common Long COVID symptoms to watch for; when to discuss Long COVID with your healthcare provider; and how to treat Long COVID.
With new COVID-19 variants continuing to emerge, breakthrough cases have been recorded as Americans return to pre-pandemic routines — and researchers are learning more about a people who experience symptoms after their initial infections have gone away.
Now officially recognized by a majority of health agencies, Long COVID includes constant, semi-constant or returning symptoms that can influence your health for weeks or months after initial COVID-19 sickness. And while COVID-19 may initially present as certain symptoms — ranging from upper-respiratory and sinus issues to gastrointestinal conditions or sweeping body pain — those with Long COVID may experience a wide range of symptoms. In fact, there are over 15 possible complications in all, according to materials published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Per statistics released in March by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there could be as many as 23 million Americans who are dealing with Long COVID complications. And because each case of Long COVID is unique, healthcare professionals are still struggling to understand how cases begin and properly diagnosing patients. That leaves many to wonder, Is my immune system still battling my initial COVID-19 infection, or am I facing prolonged side effects that are associated with Long COVID?
While experts still have more to learn and understand about treating Long COVID, your best indicator for when to reach out for help is how long you've had symptoms after first testing positive for COVID-19. Read on to learn more about Long COVID and how to determine if you may have it, plus info on how you can start receiving treatment for extended symptoms.
How to determine if you may be experiencing Long COVID:
Unfortunately, there isn't a single test or factor of determination that healthcare providers use to diagnose someone with Long COVID symptoms. Healthcare providers often must backtrack with patients to document when new symptoms started and pinpoint lingering or recurrent symptoms after an initial SARS-CoV-2 infection; it's the main method of determining if someone may be experiencing Long COVID, explains Pei-Yong Shi, M.D., a molecular biology professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch who is currently leading clinical COVID-19 vaccine research, among other fronts.
"We currently don't have any tests to diagnose Long COVID conditions; [these] patients may have a wide variety of symptoms that could stem from other health problems," he tells Good Housekeeping. "This can make it difficult for healthcare providers to recognize Long COVID conditions."
But, says Dr. Shi, there are two common factors that could indicate that someone may be suffering from Long COVID: First, a set of chronic symptoms that don't seem to be going away; and second, and most importantly, a sustained timeline and frequency of symptoms that persists after an initial sickness.
Jaclyn L. Leong, D.O., an internal medicine specialist at UCI Health in Orange County, says there isn't also a clear-cut pattern in symptoms or severity among those who with Long COVID. Symptoms that are associated with Long COVID include everything from chest pain and fast heart rates to fatigue and mental health disorders, with a laundry list of 19 symptoms in total that may qualify someone for a Long COVID diagnosis.
"There is not a specific combination of signs and symptoms that we know of in every patient, a lot of the symptoms are varied from person to person," Dr. Leong explains. "We have several developing theories as to the pathophysiology and causes of these common symptoms, which are still being studied."
Common Long COVID symptoms:
There is a wide array of health issues that is being associated with Long COVID. Any combination and severity of the following symptoms may prompt a healthcare provider to diagnose you with Long COVID.
While it hasn't been established through peer-reviewed research yet, Dr. Shi reports that one of the most common symptoms among impacted individuals currently is brain fog.
CDC officials have divided Long COVID symptoms into six general categories:
- General, core symptoms.
- Respiratory and heart symptoms.
- Neurological symptoms.
- Digestive symptoms.
- Abdominal and joint issues.
We're listing all 19 potential symptoms below.
- Chronic fatigue that makes daily routines near impossible
- Post-exertional malaise, or symptoms that feel considerably worse after being physical or exerting mental effort for any period of time
- Difficulty breathing or frequent shortness of breath, breathlessness
- Chest pains
- Heart palpitations, or a regularly occurring fast heartbeat
- Brain fog, or difficulty thinking or concentrating
- Disrupted sleep
- Depression or anxiety
- Lightheadedness, or dizziness when you stand up
- Pins-and-needles sensations
- A sustained loss of smell or taste, even a subtle change
- Stomach pain or gastrointestinal discomfort
- Chronic diarrhea
- Joint or muscle pain
- Skin rash
- Sustained changes to a menstrual cycle
According to an article published by the American Medical Association (AMA), some experts believe there to be three separate kinds of Long COVID affecting Americans currently. The first kind, which is the most common, presents ongoing symptoms due to cellular damage caused by COVID-19. Another variety of Long COVID seems to manifest as bpatients affected by symptoms that reappear sporadically long after initial recovery, seemingly out of the blue, the AMA reports. Finally, the third kind of Long COVID involves chronic hospitalization — severe symptoms that never let up at all. The experts sourced by the AMA indicated doctors are treatment for each type with different therapies.
When should I ask my healthcare provider if I'm experiencing Long COVID?
Because you can have one, a combo or a unique combination of any of the symptoms listed above — in any degree of severity, from barely noticeable to constantly affecting your health — it may be easier to determine if you are experiencing Long COVID by examining a timeline.
Long COVID-19 is defined by the CDC as a condition in which individuals have ongoing symptoms of COVID-19 that persist beyond 4 weeks from the initial infection, Dr. Leong says. "Therefore, your initial acute signs and symptoms with COVID-19 should resolve after four weeks — if they do not, it may be indicative of Long COVID."
If you have noticed that any of the symptoms above are still an issue for you a month out from a positive COVID-19 test, Dr. Leong suggest that your first resource be a recently established Long COVID Recovery program. These specialty clinics are being set up at regional health centers to help patients better understand their symptoms and facilitate more effective treatment; Becker's Hospital Review has published a burgeoning list of 66 different hospitals and medical centers that have created new Long COVID programs.
"Letting your healthcare provider know that you've had COVID-19 is now a vital piece of information in your medical history, especially if you haven't fully recovered from your initial symptoms," Dr. Leong says. Plus, your healthcare provider may direct you to receive another booster COVID-19 booster vaccine if they determine you have fully recovered — which, according to a recent Nature Medicine review, may lower the risk of developing Long COVID in the future.
How can I treat Long COVID?
Unlike other antiviral treatments that may help you recover from an initial COVID-19 sickness, including Paxlovid, there isn't a single approved medication or treatment process for addressing Long COVID currently. Instead, doctors tend to treat individual symptoms.
Researchers are actively gathering new information on signs that may clue you into Long COVID, and Dr. Leong adds that specialists have identified inflammation linked to oxidative stress in multiple organs as a hallmark of this particular form of the disease. But doctors are currently using existing medication to treat symptoms in unique areas of the body rather than holistically across the board.
"Since it can take years for new drugs to safely emerge, we have been studying and utilizing medications and treatments that we currently use for other medical ailments," she explains. "We typically treat patients from head to toe, addressing every organ system that is specific to patients' symptoms, because not everyone will have the same issues."
While there isn't one solution to end Long COVID, there are things you can do to feel better. Long COVID may not resolve itself, which is why it's important to address it with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.