Meet the long-haulers: Dealing with the lingering effects of COVID

For COVID long-haulers, rehabilitation can provide relief

This article was updated on Oct. 25, 2021 to reflect recent information and research.

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • COVID-19 sometimes leaves patients with long-term side effects, including fatigue and joint pain.
  • While little is known about why certain people suffer long-term side effects and others don’t, new and ongoing research is shedding light on how healthcare providers can adapt care accordingly.
  • Rehabilitation options are available to people suffering from long-term effects, and for their family members who are unsure of how to provide support.

By now, we are all familiar with the common symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell and fever or chills. But did you know that some people experience prolonged effects of the disease that can last for weeks or even months after infection? According to a recent study, up to eighty percent of individuals who had COVID-19 are experiencing long-term effects. Here’s more on what these “COVID long haulers” experience.

What are the most common lasting effects?

The CDC reports that some of the most common prolonged effects of COVID-19 include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain and chest pain. Other reported symptoms include difficulty concentrating, depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and heart palpitations. These may be uncomfortable but are not usually serious.

Are there more serious long-term effects?

Yes. More serious prolonged effects of COVID-19 have been noted but are generally less common. These longer-term effects can include chronic damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys or brain. More specifically, those with COVID-19 may experience inflammation of the heart muscle, poor lung function, continued issues with taste and smell and problems sleeping for weeks or even months after they contract the virus. 

Who is more likely to experience long-term effects of COVID?

The CDC study reports that people who are more likely to experience prolonged effects include those over the age of 50 and those with chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure and liver disease. Additionally, those who were sick enough with COVID-19 to require hospitalization were also more likely to experience prolonged effects. Keep in mind that these prolonged effects can occur even if the patient wasn’t hospitalized.

Also, one in five previously healthy adults ages 18 to 34 also reported not feeling like themselves 14 to 21 days after testing positive. Yet, data indicates that children and teens are less likely to experience prolonged effects. 

What else do we know about “long-haulers”?

My COVID Diary, an ongoing study led by Providence, asks study participants diagnosed with COVID-19 to journal their symptoms. The results of the study have not yet been published, but early analysis shows that symptoms can be very different from person to person, and some people’s symptoms can stick around for months. “Some patients will get better, then begin to feel sick again,” said Ari Robicsek, M.D., chief medical analytics officer for Providence, and a lead researcher on the My COVID Diary project.

Overall, the data is still not definitive regarding long-term side effects, especially why they occur in the first place and how long they’ll last. Current theories include that prolonged side effects are an immune or inflammatory response, although this has yet to be confirmed.

While little is known, Providence health providers are committed to reviewing ongoing research and insight into COVID-19. Recently, Providence Inpatient Rehabilitation Medical Director Natalia Covarrubius-Eckardt, M.D., joined Lindsay Fossatti, PT, DPT, NCS, Lead Physical Therapist for the St. Jude Outpatient Neurological Rehabilitation Team, for a live event discussing long-term COVID-19 side effects and the rehabilitation options available through Providence.

In the video, they share how Providence has adapted their inpatient/outpatient rehabilitation services to serve COVID long-haulers. In addition, they also discuss:

  • The wide range of symptoms, presentations and timelines of COVID long-haulers
  • The theories surrounding of the origin and cause of COVID long-hauler symptoms
  • Potential long-lasting, irreversible effects of COVID-19
  • The new long-hauler rehabilitation programs and support groups developed by Providence St. Jude

What does this mean for me?

“This is a new disease and there is still so much we don’t know about it,” said Dr. Robicsek. “We have seen such varied symptoms, from the common to the very strange. We don’t know yet how to predict who will get better in a couple of weeks, and who will end up with prolonged symptoms.”

Your best bet is to continue following public health guidance to avoid getting COVID-19, which includes getting vaccinated when you’re able, wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently and maintaining six feet of distance from others.

As new research is made available, Providence healthcare providers continue to adapt so they can provide updated or new services for those suffering from COVID’s long-term side effects. If you suspect you are suffering from long-term COVID side effects, we urge you to contact your physician to share your concerns so you can get the help you need via our rehabilitation options. Resources are also available for family members who need support as caretakers of individuals experiencing long-term effects.

We’re making significant progress in getting people vaccinated and better days are ahead. Let’s stay safe and help put an end to this pandemic.

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Let’s Get Back to Normal

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Providence Serves Long-haul COVID Patients in Specialized Clinic

 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.