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Coping with Long COVID: Symptoms and Treatments

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Learn how to deal with health conditions linked to COVID-19 that sometimes persist long after the initial illness.

For many people infected with COVID-19, related health problems don’t end when they test negative. Far from it.

More than three years after the start of a global pandemic and the resulting development of vaccines and treatments, many are still coping with lasting symptoms such as debilitating fatigue, chest pain, brain fog, and changes in smell or taste. These symptoms are part of a new disorder known as long COVID.

While the U.S. government has determined that long COVID may be recognized as a disability under federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s not a single illness, and identifying it can be tricky for patients and healthcare providers alike. Long COVID patients are sometimes called “long-haulers” because of the extended period in which they experience symptoms.

Read More: What the End of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Means for Your Healthcare

Who Is at Risk for Long COVID?

Healthcare experts haven’t yet uncovered precise reasons why some people develop long-lasting symptoms after having COVID-19 and others don’t, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some general trends:

  • Long COVID occurs more often in people who had a severe case of COVID-19, but anyone who was infected can experience it.
  • Unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19 may have a higher risk of developing long COVID than those who received the vaccination.
  • People can be reinfected multiple times with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and each infection carries a risk of long-lasting symptoms.
  • Most people suffering from long COVID know they had COVID-19, but some may not. They may not even have tested positive for the virus.
  • People who are older or overweight may have a higher risk of developing long COVID.

Read More: COVID-19 Vaccine Information

Diagnosing Long COVID

Doctors and other medical professionals base their diagnoses on health histories, including previous COVID-19 infections, as well as a physical exam. Symptoms they consider include the following:

  • General
    • Fatigue that interferes with daily activities
    • Fever
    • Issues that get worse with physical or mental exertion
  • Respiratory and heart-related
    • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
    • Cough
    • Chest pain
    • Rapid heartbeat or pounding heart (heart palpitations)
  • Neurological
    • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
    • Headache
    • Sleep problems
    • Dizziness when standing up, vertigo or lightheadedness
    • Pins-and-needles feelings or tingling
    • Changes in smell or taste
    • Depression or anxiety
  • Digestive
    • Diarrhea
    • Stomach pain
  • Other
    • Joint or muscle pain
    • Rash
    • Changes in menstrual cycles

What if I Think I Have Long COVID?

If you have symptoms you think may point to long COVID, book an appointment with your primary care provider. Before your visit, gather the following information to make it easier for your provider to determine whether you have long COVID or another disorder or illness:

  • List of current and previous healthcare providers
  • List of current and past medical conditions
  • Details about your COVID-19 exposure or infection and symptoms that you think are related:
    • Date(s) of your positive test and when symptoms began
    • Date when post-COVID-19 symptoms started
    • Any related prior treatments and diagnostic tests (bloodwork, X-rays)
    • How often symptoms occur
    • Anything that makes symptoms worse
  • List of current medications
  • Concerns and questions you want your healthcare provider to address

Also make sure to discuss next steps, including additional tests, reporting of test results and any needed follow-up visits.

Long COVID Treatments

While there are no specific treatments for long COVID, research suggests that metformin, a medication commonly used for type 2 diabetes, may provide some protection against long COVID, according to the National Institutes of Health.

If you already have long COVID symptoms, talk with your provider about developing a personal management plan to help keep them under control. Options may include:

  • Physical and speech therapy or neurological rehabilitation for cognitive symptoms
  • Optimizing nutrition and sleep
  • Reducing stress
  • Light aerobic exercise
  • Eating brain-healthy foods
  • Dietary supplements such as probiotics
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications

Find a Provider: Primary Care Doctors Near You

Treatment recommendations vary depending on a person’s symptoms, so be sure to explain yours thoroughly so that you and your provider can devise the best plan to deal with them, enabling you to live the life you want.