We’re continuing to learn a lot about the coronavirus now, almost seven months into this pandemic.
One thing that is becoming clear is that the symptoms continue to linger weeks to even months after the initial diagnosis for some people.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which conducted phone interviews with people who had a positive COVID-19 test two to three weeks earlier, showed that 35 percent of those who had been symptomatic had not returned to their pre-COVID-19 health. That was true across age groups: 26 percent for people ages 18-34, 32 percent for people ages 35-49 and 47 percent for people 50 years old or older. It was also true for people who did not have any pre-existing condition before getting COVID-19.
The most common symptom that lingers is the cough, but people also reported fatigue, difficulty breathing, congestion, sore throat, chest pain, headache, body aches, fever, chills, loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and confusion.
"COVID is really going to multiple body organs," says Dr. Esther Melamed, an assistant professor of neurology at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin. "It weakens the entire body of people who have it."
Melamed says there is even a term for those patients who are still experiencing symptoms weeks to months later: "long-haulers."
For her patients, how long it lasts doesn’t seem to have a connection to how severe their disease was in the first place, she says.
Several of her patients who had a mild case are still reporting severe fatigue, lack of motivation and mood changes more than a month to two months later, she says.
Melamed and her colleagues at UT and Dell Medical School are part of a 15-site National Institutes of Health study to understand the immunology of COVID-19.
"We’re fighting the virus by trying to understand it," she says.
Like the flu, COVID-19 can weaken a person, making them more susceptible to other viruses and pneumonia. That’s why doctors are urging people to get the flu shot this year because they fear what will happen if a person gets the flu then gets COVID-19 or vice versa.
Unlike the flu, though, it’s not just the respiratory symptoms. It’s affecting the brain, the spine, digestion and muscles including the heart.
The other thing that Melamed and doctors around the country are starting to understand about the virus is that people can become reinfected with a different strain of it. The reinfection might be milder or it might be more severe.
There are things people can do to try to improve the course of their disease. Melamed recommends a proper diet with a lot of fruit and vegetables, protein and antioxidants like those found in berries. As well, she recommends a lot of Vitamin D, sleep and taking care of their mental health.
If you are still having symptoms of COVID-19 weeks later, see your doctor. Things like an inhaler could be helpful for the breathing; physical therapy and occupational therapy might also be needed for the other symptoms.