There’s a lot the medical community is still sorting out about long COVID, so it’s understandable to have questions if you develop new symptoms without an obvious cause. Could you have long COVID or something else entirely?
It’s important to point out that the answer isn’t always obvious and that long COVID is a diagnosis of exclusion. Meaning, people are typically diagnosed with long COVID after other potential illnesses have been ruled out. But knowing the most common long COVID symptoms can at least give you a clue as to whether post-COVID conditions could be responsible for your currently health issue.
Well, a new study published in Nature Communications aims to shed at least some light on common long COVID symptoms. The study analyzed data from 154,068 people in the Veterans Health Administration system who had COVID-19 and compared it to about 5.6 million people with similar characteristics who did not have the virus. The researchers discovered that people who had COVID-19 were 36% more likely to develop long-term gastrointestinal issues they didn’t have before they got the virus. More than 9,600 of those patients who had COVID-19 developed issues with their digestion, intestines, pancreas, or liver.
Of those, the most common issues were gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and peptic ulcer disease, but some experienced GI symptoms like constipation, stomach pain, and diarrhea. “Our results show that people with SARS-CoV-2 infection are at increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders in the post-acute phase of COVID-19,” the researchers wrote. “Post-COVID care should involve attention to gastrointestinal health and disease.”
Of course, not all patients with long COVID experience GI issues and research into the condition is ongoing. Here’s where things stand right now.
What are the most common long COVID symptoms?
There are a lot of potential symptoms that can fall under the long COVID umbrella. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks them down by types of symptoms:
- Tiredness or fatigue that interferes with daily life
- Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental effort
Respiratory and heart symptoms
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Fast-beating or pounding heart
- Brain fog
- Sleep problems
- Dizziness when you stand up
- Pins-and-needles feelings
- Change in smell or taste
- Depression or anxiety
- Joint or muscle pain
- Changes in menstrual cycles
There has been research into which of these are the most common, and the findings have varied. One study of nearly 17,500 adults who had COVID-19 found that long COVID was more likely to cause symptoms like heart palpitations, hair loss, fatigue, chest pain, trouble breathing, joint pain, and obesity.
Another study, this one published in The British Medical Journal, found that people were 35% more likely to develop anxiety and 40% more likely to develop depression after having COVID-19.
But doctors say they see a range. “The most common symptoms we see in individuals are things like fatigue, brain fog, sleep disorders, joint aches, and a variety of gastrointestinal issues,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York.
Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, lists off fatigue, exercise intolerance (meaning, not being able to exercise at a level that’s typical for someone of a particular age and size), and trouble concentrating.
Ultimately, all the symptoms associated with long COVID “reinforces that COVID is not just a respiratory tract disorder—it can affect the body all over,” Dr. Russo says.
How do you know if you have long COVID?
It’s admittedly tricky. “There’s not a diagnostic test for long COVID and it’s important to have a medical evaluation to rule out another cause of symptoms first,” Dr. Adalja says.
Testing will be specific to the symptoms you’re experiencing, Dr. Russo says, and your doctor will try to rule out other health conditions first. That may involve things like a physical exam from your doctor, along with blood tests, chest X-rays, and an electrocardiogram, per the CDC.
“If you notice new symptoms, it’s prudent to have them assessed,” Dr. Russo says. “It could be related to COVID or it could be something completely different. Regardless, it’s important to get assessed to learn what is causing the symptoms and what can be done to alleviate those symptoms.”
How long does it take for long-term COVID symptoms to go away?
It’s difficult to say for certain how long long COVID symptoms will last in any one person, Dr. Russo says. However, a study published in The British Medical Journal earlier this year analyzed nearly 2 million patient records in Israel and found that most long COVID symptoms that developed after a mild infection faded after about a year.
The CDC notes that symptoms can last weeks, months, or even years after an infection, and that they may go away and come back. However, the CDC says, most people get better over time.
Ultimately, “many have recovered in a year, but some people’s symptoms persist,” Dr. Adalja says.
If you suspect that you have long COVID, doctors say it’s important to get an evaluation from a medical professional. Your symptoms could be due to long COVID or they could be caused by some other health condition—either way, it’s important for you to get care, Dr. Russo says. “What you don’t want to do is think, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it so I shouldn’t worry about it,’” he says.
Even if there is no good treatment available for your symptoms right now, Dr. Russo points out that could change. “If clinical trials become available then at least you know what you’re dealing with and can sign up,” he says.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.