More than two years into the pandemic, millions of people are still suffering from lingering COVID symptoms despite having been sick for several months.
Alejandra Arias is one of these people. Just like her, many wonder if they are suffering from these symptoms, what they consist of and what can happen to them if they are not treated.
In September of last year, the La Puente resident began to feel symptoms on the 15th. She did not have to be hospitalized after testing positive on the 19th, but her doctor sent her an oxygen tank to help her breathe.
“My oxygen levels were below 85 percent, that was a concern for me and my doctor,” the 48-year-old said.
Although 15 days later Arias recovered, there were some symptoms that she continued to feel that have not gone away until now, such as headaches, lack of focus and chest pressure.
Arias has trouble walking and lives alone, so going to the doctor is a difficult task for her, but she insists that she would like to know if her ailments are a consequence of COVID.
“I think if I was sure I would do my best to go to the doctor. It is something worrying to feel these ailments and not know what will happen to my health if I continue to have them,” Arias said.
Dr. Samantha Wu, medical director of clinical development at Goodpath, an integrative medicine and care company, on this topic, explained that for now there is no universally accepted definition for prolonged COVID.
Here in the United States, it is recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the presence of new, recurring, or continuing symptoms that occur four or more weeks after initial COVID-19 infection.
“Prolonged COVID symptoms can have a significant negative impact on quality of life and functioning, which worries people,” Wu said.
“The absence of known cures and the uncertainty surrounding the recovery timeline also contribute to the concern people have about this condition,” he said.
And there are various estimates of people who suffer from prolonged COVID, as well as ongoing research to determine how common the duration of COVID is, but some previous studies have found that approximately 30% of people infected with COVID-19 have persistent symptoms for several months after the initial infection.
“If we apply this percentage to the most recent CDC estimate of COVID-19 infections in the United States, it is possible that up to 44 million people are experiencing or have experienced COVID for a long time,” said the expert.
While millions blame various symptoms as part of prolonged COVID, the doctor explained that you have to look for signs as a series of symptoms that can involve many different parts of the body.
These symptoms can fluctuate over time and differ from person to person. Some of the more common symptoms include fatigue, mental confusion, and shortness of breath.
Prolonged COVID can be difficult to identify for a number of reasons; one is that there are no specific tests to diagnose the condition. Health care providers take into account a person’s medical history (for example, whether they have previously been infected with COVID-19), along with their signs and symptoms, to reach a diagnosis.
Drawing the line between the signs of prolonged COVID and other ailments is a very delicate part as well. Wo believes this is a new challenge for health experts, since the symptoms of prolonged COVID are also common to other conditions.
Screening for long-term COVID involves excluding other conditions, particularly those that are life-threatening and/or require a specific treatment approach.
“As we learn more about long-term COVID, hopefully we’ll be able to differentiate it more quickly and easily from other ailments,” he said.
However, it is a fact that prolonged COVID can have a significant cost in people’s personal and work lives. It can affect a person’s ability to carry out daily activities at home, with some people unable to perform basic tasks such as doing laundry or climbing stairs.
For Mrs. Arias this is a reality. Due to chest pain and breathing problems, she finds it difficult to walk certain distances and even easy tasks, such as sweeping, tire her out.
When it comes to clear thinking, your agility to digest long talks is not the same.
“Sometimes I’m talking and I forget what I was going to say. There are times when simple tasks like focusing on something I am reading are difficult for me, I feel that my focus of concentration is not the same,” Arias said.
Prolonged COVID can also affect work productivity and force people to reduce their work hours or take time off. In some situations, people with prolonged COVID may require long-term disability support. All of these scenarios can cause tremendous stress and anxiety, which can make the recovery process even more challenging.
People who suspect they have prolonged COVID should see a health care provider for further guidance, Wu said.
While there is no proven cure for long-term COVID, organizations like the CDC have established treatment guidelines. Protracted COVID care remains largely focused on addressing symptoms and any associated conditions, ideally through a multi-pronged, holistic approach.
“Attention to proper nutrition, sleep, stress reduction, and maintaining an adequate level of activity are important for overall well-being, which extends to caring for people with prolonged COVID,” Wu said.
The expert emphasizes that it is not necessary to visit doctors for further assessments.
The tests that are available to us can often produce normal or uninformative results in people with prolonged COVID, and the usefulness of testing must be balanced against the risk of harm from overtesting, he stated.
“There are situations where further evaluation is warranted, particularly if there is concern about life-threatening or related conditions that may respond to specific treatments, as well as if symptoms are not improving or are worsening,” he said.
When asked how prolonged COVID is treated and when we should consider treatment, the expert said that anyone whose prolonged COVID symptoms are affecting their quality of life and function should seek care.
He added that prolonged COVID is such a new condition and the understanding of how to treat it is still evolving.
“Raising concerns, reporting any new or worsening symptoms, and actively participating in making decisions about your care are important things for patients to consider,” he said.