Some people with COVID-19 have lingering symptoms for weeks or months after they begin to recover. You might know this as “long COVID.” Experts have coined a new term for it: post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC).
Recent research suggests that up to about 13% of people who have had COVID-19 have symptoms a month or longer after the infection.
Among people who needed hospitalization, the stats go up to more than 30%.
But it can happen to anyone, whether you’re otherwise healthy or have other health conditions. You can get it even if your earlier COVID-19 symptoms were mild or moderate.
Experts don’t know why people get long COVID. Research continues on that, as well as:
- Treatment and prevention
- How long it can take to recover from it
- Whether long COVID can make heart and brain problems more likely
- How someone can build immunity after they have COVID-19
- What role vaccines play
In the meantime, if your doctor diagnoses you with long COVID, they may order blood tests to see if you have any underlying issues that might cause it. They'll also take a look at your medical history.
Long COVID appears to affect each person in different ways. You might notice a wide range of things that could linger for a long time. Most people’s symptoms improve slowly. Common symptoms include:
Lung and heart symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Inflammation of your heart muscle
- Lung-related issues
- Rapid heartbeat
Neurological (or brain) symptoms
- Brain fog
- Numbness and tingling
- Blurred vision
- Tinnitus, or a constant ringing in your ear
- Sleep issues
- Loss of smell and taste
- A hard time with concentration and memory
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Stomach pain
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Kidney problems
- Hair loss
- Skin rashes
If you have any of these, tell your doctor about it right away.
Long COVID and Mental Health
Long COVID’s side effects aren’t just physical. If you already have a mental health condition -- like anxiety or depression -- long COVID may worsen your symptoms. Inflammation from COVID-19 can affect any organ, including your brain. One study found this inflammation might play a role in mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts. Experts are still learning whether anti-inflammatory treatments can help these particular issues.
Long COVID and Vaccines
As scientists research the causes and symptoms of long COVID, a large study in the United Kingdom looked at data on more than 1.2 million partially or fully vaccinated people.
It found that fully vaccinated people -- those who had gotten both doses of COVID-19 vaccines like those made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca -- had almost 50% lower odds of having COVID symptoms at least 28 days after infection.
The study didn’t include people who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine, which is not widely used in the U.K.
Treatment of Long COVID
Long COVID symptoms can last weeks or months. Currently, there’s no specific treatment or cure for people with long-haul symptoms.
For long COVID symptoms like rapid heartbeat and fatigue, lifestyle changes or medications may help. Talk with your doctor about what might work best for you.
Changes like these might help ease long COVID symptoms:
- Take lots of small breaks throughout the day. Understand when you have the most energy and plan how you want to use it. Don’t overdo it. Break up tasks into small chunks.
- Exercise when you can. Start light and build the intensity. You can start with walks and slowly add weights to help build strength. Exercise also releases endorphins that can lift your mood.
- Use a walking stick to lean on if you’re feeling tried.
- To ease muscle or joint pain, try low-intensity flexibility exercises like yoga or tai chi, light stretches, and strength exercises. Stair-climbing and resistance bands can help improve strength.
- Try to stick to a daily routine. This will help with memory and mood issues.
- If you’re having trouble remembering things, write them down or put them in your phone, in a diary, or on a calendar.
- Try to curb distractions when you work, or keep a to-do list. This can help improve your focus.
- Reach out to friends and family when you need support and help.
Before you start any exercise or diet routine, check with your doctor or a specialist like a nutritionist or physical therapist.
As long COVID symptoms may last a long time and vary in intensity, be kind to yourself through the recovery process. Know that some days may be worse than others.
If you have severe or worsening shortness of breath or chest pain, call your doctor, call 911, or go to the nearest hospital.
Living with symptoms like brain fog, breathlessness, or chest and joint pain on a daily basis can take a toll on mental health, too. Psychological treatment may help people with long-haul symptoms manage uncertainty and anxiety and better navigate the recovery process.
This can include:
- Trauma therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
What You Can Do
The best way to avoid long COVID is to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection and get vaccinated as soon as you can.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get the COVID-19 vaccine and everyone 5 years and older get boosters if eligible. The vaccines are safe and effective at preventing and limiting the spread of the virus. If you have COVID-19, wait until the illness clears before getting the shot. If you’re not sure, ask your doctor.
Also, wear a mask and try to stay at least 6 feet away from other people when you're out in public if you are in an area with a high COVID-19 level, or if you or a loved one is at increased risk from COVID-19. Avoid very crowded places. Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use alcohol-based sanitizer.