The severity and duration of long COVID vary. Some people recover in a few weeks, while a smaller number have debilitating and lingering health issues. There is currently no test, treatment or cure. There’s not even an accepted medical definition.
“When you don’t have any tests that show that anything’s abnormal, it can be quite invalidating and anxiety-provoking,” Geng said.
The physical and emotional toll have left some feeling hopeless. A 2022 study of adults in Japan and Sweden found that those with post-COVID conditions were more than twice as likely to develop mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, as people without them.
“One of my friends committed suicide in May of 2021,” Hedgecock said. “She had a mild COVID infection, and she progressively had medical complications continuously pop up, and it just got so bad that she decided to end her life.”
In Los Angeles County, 46% of adults who contracted COVID had fully recovered a month later, but the rest — a majority — reported one or more continuing symptoms, according to a 675-patient study by the University of Southern California’s COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center. The researchers found that chronic fatigue topped the list of health issues, followed by brain fog and a persistent cough, all of which affect people’s daily lives.
Among the respondents who identified as living with long COVID, 77% said their condition limited daily activities such as going to school or work or socializing. One-quarter reported experiencing severe limitations.
Taking antivirals cuts the risk of developing long COVID in people who are newly infected. But for people already suffering, medical science is trying to catch up.
Here’s a look at Hedgecock and two other patients who have had long COVID for years.
A debilitating brain injury
Before contracting COVID during spring 2020, Hedgecock’s life revolved around fitness. She worked as a personal trainer in Los Angeles and competed in endurance competitions on the weekends. At 29, she was about to launch an online wellness business. Then she started having trouble breathing.
“One of the scariest things that happened to me was I couldn’t breathe at night,” Hedgecock said. “I did go to the emergency room on three different occasions, and each time I was told, ‘You’re up and you’re moving. You’re young, you’re healthy. It’s going to be fine.’”
Her primary care physician at the time told her she didn’t need supplemental oxygen even though her oxygen saturation dipped below normal at night, leaving her gasping for breath and crying in frustration.
Her condition kept her from one of her favorite hobbies, reading, for 19 months.
“I couldn’t look at a page and tell you what it said. It was like there was a disconnect between the words and my brain,” she said. “It was the strangest, most discouraging thing ever.”