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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 continually on the rise, more breakthrough cases are regularly recorded as Americans return to pre-pandemic routines — and researchers are learning more about a subset of impacted individuals who experience extended symptoms that aren't fading 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 a COVID-19 illness may initially present certain targeted symptoms — ranging from upper-respiratory and sinus issues to gastrointestinal conditions or sweeping body pain — those who are impacted by Long COVID may experience a wide range of sweeping side effects, as there are over 15 possible complications in all, according to materials published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
1/ More data on long COVID from @CDCgov:https://t.co/U3sZ03wkYI
COVID survivors have:
🔹2x the risk for developing pulmonary embolism or respiratory conditions
🔹1 in 5 aged 18–64 years & one in four aged ≥65 years experienced at least one condition possibly related to COVID pic.twitter.com/EyNa7LfZNd
— Céline Gounder, MD, ScM, FIDSA 🇺🇦 (@celinegounder) May 25, 2022
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 throughout the pandemic. And because each case of Long COVID is unique, healthcare professionals are still struggling to understand how cases begin and may have trouble diagnosing certain individuals, leaving many to wonder: Is my immune system still battling initial COVID-19 symptoms, 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, there's a key indicator that should prompt sick individuals to reach out for help — a timeline after first testing positive for COVID-19. Read on to learn more about early warning signs of Long COVID and how to determine if you may be impacted, 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 can turn to for diagnosing someone with Long COVID symptoms. Currently, healthcare providers are often backtracking with patients to document 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."
Dr. Shi adds there are two common factors that currently serve as indicators 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 that's noted 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 are currently experiencing 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 for impacted individuals:
There is a wide array of health issues that are 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 shares that he finds one of the most common symptoms among impacted individuals currently is brain fog. "We currently don't know why some patients develop Long COVID, [and] conditions can include a wide range of health problems, which can last for weeks, months, or even years," he adds.
CDC officials have divided Long COVID symptoms into six general categories:
General, core symptoms.
Respiratory and heart 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
Heart palpitations, or a regularly occurring fast heartbeat
Brain fog, or difficulty thinking or concentrating
Depression or anxiety
Lightheadedness, or dizziness when you stand up
A sustained loss of smell or taste, even a subtle change
Stomach pain or gastrointestinal discomfort
Joint or muscle pain
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 of Long COVID presents ongoing symptoms due to damage sustained by cells across the body due to COVID-19, the most common type of Long COVID. Some individuals may be affected by symptoms that reappear sporadically long after initial recovery, seemingly out of the blue — which is a different type of disease, 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 reacting differently in treatment plans for each type.
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 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.
"The timeline for long-term effects of COVID-19 is defined by the CDC as individuals with 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 adds that your first resource can be a recently established Long COVID Recovery program. These public health resources 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 advises. 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 an approved medication or treatment process for addressing Long COVID currently.
Researchers are actively gathering new information about how immune systems exhibit signs that may clue you into Long COVID, and Dr. Leong adds that specialists have identified that inflammation linked to oxidative stress in multiple organs has become a hallmark sign 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, it's certainly not an issue that will resolve itself — and you'll need to address it with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
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