As a doctor practicing in New York, the early American epicenter of COVID-19, even I was not especially aware of this emerging threat until recently.
In fact, it wasn’t really on my radar until a patient came to my office presenting with long-term complications of COVID-19.
Because while most people may recover from their infection within a few weeks, the medical community is now seeing people who are suffering from ongoing symptoms of COVID-19. (In this case, experiencing symptoms as long as 12 weeks after the start of acute illness.)
What is “long COVID”?
I know that putting the two phrases “long-term” and “COVID-19” together may seem odd, given that this virus has only been with us about a year now. But doctors are starting to use the diagnosis “post-COVID syndrome” or “long COVID” to describe patients who experience long-term symptomatic cases.
In fact, the patient I recently saw still had symptoms since becoming ill nearly a year ago, at the very end of February 2020. And she’s not alone…
According to the latest statistics, one in five people with COVID-19 will go on to develop longer term symptoms. And around 10 percent of people will still suffer symptoms long after 12 weeks—the most common being fatigue, cough, and headache.
In addition to all of those symptoms, my patient had yet to regain her sense of taste or smell, either. She also still suffered from shortness of breath and heart palpitations, which, of course, is a disruption to her daily life—especially in terms of staying active.
In order to get a better understanding of this phenomenon, a team of European doctors and researchers followed nearly 670 patients, with a mean age of 43 years, all of whom tested positive for COVID-19, but did not end up hospitalized.
Their results appeared recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine. And they found that even a month after diagnosis, a full one-third of these patients were still reporting significant symptoms.1 More specifically:
- 14 percent reported fatigue
- 9 percent reported shortness of breath
- 12 percent reported loss of taste or smell
- 6 percent reported persistent cough
- 3 percent reported headaches
But perhaps the most distressing aspect of “long COVID” is the lack of clear answers. Doctors simply don’t know how much longer these symptoms will last… or if these patients will ever recover at all.
Getting the word out
The good news is, there’s a program currently underway in the U.K. to help identify and provide critical services to the patients that fall into this “long COVID” category—in the hopes that they will eventually fully recover.2
But of course, there isn’t any talk of the sort in the U.S.—even as our pandemic rages on without an end in sight, due to a woefully botched pandemic response.
Sadly, we’re still in triage mode here—with precious healthcare resources devoted daily to a flood of new patients, many of whom ended up sick because they flouted all the guidelines in the first place.
Nevertheless, this new focus on long COVID highlights the importance of keeping the public and patients informed, so that they know that longer illness is a possibility—and that they should seek out help accordingly.
Public awareness of this issue is vital to preempt anxiety in patients who don’t recover the way they expect to—especially given the wide range of symptoms related to long COVID, and the way that these symptoms appear to fluctuate.
And as a healthcare professional myself, I’ll be the first to advocate for the importance of telling people what to expect—including what could potentially happen to them.
Recovery begins at home
It should be clear by now that COVID-19 is much more than a regular flu. And the potential for long-term consequences may be the brightest example of how.
So it’s up to each of us to do our part. Because honestly, this could all be over much quicker if we weren’t starting out our vaccination roll-outs with hundreds of thousands of people already infected—and with hundreds of thousands more expected to die.
And even as we take our first slow steps toward recovery, I urge everyone to think of all of the front-line workers who will be grappling with the aftershocks of their own COVID infections, along with a hefty dose of PTSD, when all of this is finally over.
So the next time you hear someone wave off COVID-19 as “just the flu” or “not a big deal,” remember the possible long-term complications of this virus. And pledge to protect yourself and others. Wear a mask, social distance, routinely wash your hands—and get vaccinated, when and if you’re able. Or better yet, just stay home—even if you feel fine.
1. Nehme M, et al. COVID-19 Symptoms: Longitudinal Evolution and Persistence in Outpatient Settings. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2020; DOI: 10.7326/M20-5926
2. “NICE Issues Rapid Guideline on Long COVID.” Medscape Medical News, 12/18/2020. (medscape.com/viewarticle/942893)