For those that have tested positive for COVID-19 and have mild to moderate symptoms, counting the days down from 14 is the only way to get through. After two weeks of fatigue, fevers and a sore throat, feeling back to normal is the only priority. But for some, symptoms like shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, chest pain, muscle aches, intermittent fevers don’t resolve in that stipulated time, and can last for months after. What could this mean and what do you need to keep in mind? We asked doctors for their take.
What is “long COVID?”
According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most adults tend to seek medical care in subsequent months of testing positive, and two-thirds of those have a health condition they did not have before. While some report COVID-19 symptoms such as breathlessness, fatigue, muscle ache and a cough, others may even have new issues like a rapid heart rate, depression and kidney issues. Those who are reporting these unrelenting symptoms are now being called COVID-19 long-haulers, with the technical terms being post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. This phenomenon is similar to the post-viral syndromes seen in the past with SARS, swine flu and Ebola.
“It is a proven fact that COVID takes a toll on nearly every organ of the body in the long run. So of these issues seen in the long haul seen so far include breathing issues, lung fibrosis, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), irregular heart rhythm, stroke, low levels of oxygen in the blood, anxiety, stress, memory problems, loss of smell and taste, headaches because of neurological issues, the onset of diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart failure, palpitations, coronary artery disease, constipation, diarrhoea, acid reflux, depression, blood clots in the legs and lungs, skin and hair loss, chronic kidney disease leading to dialysis, fatigue, anaemia, joint and muscle problems and fatigue,” says by Dr Bipin Jibhkate, consultant critical care medicine, and ICU director Wockhardt Hospital. When the body fights a severe illness, the inflammatory effects of the body may stress out the immune system, which can affect the other organs and the nervous system, the effects of which show either immediately post recovery or even months after you test negative.
For some, the issues may not be life-threatening, but can really affect quality of life, for example, the loss of smell and taste. Coronavirus can affect cells in the nose, so having COVID-19 can leave people without balanced senses for months after. For others, hair loss can be an issue. “Noticeable hair loss usually starts after an average of 55 days post-recovery. The hair goes into the resting phase sooner than intended and this results in clumps of hair in your hairbrush. This could be due to the inflammatory response in the body, as well as the stress that the disease could cause,” says Dr Rinky Kapoor, consultant dermatologist, The Esthetic Clinics.
What can you do to improve your symptoms?
It is important to note that since COVID-19 has only been seen since 2019, the long-term recovery time of these side effects are not completely known yet. Dr Jibhkate says that it is key to continue seeing your doctors for follow-ups to ensure that these issues are tamped down and treated as soon as they come up.
Your lifestyle plays a vital role in improving your overall well-being after getting infected with COVID-19 says Dr Vikrant Shah, consulting physician, intensivist and infection disease specialist, Zen Multispeciality Hospital, Mumbai. In addition to having a well-balanced diet, he suggests quitting alcohol and smoking as you recuperate, as well as making sure to work out and stay vigilant about your vitals over the next few months.
Mental health concerns among survivors
A recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry indicates an increased risk of neurological morbidities within about three to six months after COVID-19 diagnosis. Commonly seen diagnoses include mood disorders, insomnia, dementia and even substance abuse.
“COVID-19 has thrown immense light on the importance of mental well-being and has driven people to recognise the value of addressing psychological distress. Acute anxiety and hopelessness among people who have suffered from the disease are a common occurrence in my practice,” says Mumbai-based counselling psychologist Maithili Thanawala Kanabar. Kanabar adds that some of her clients sought counselling while in isolation as it had a detrimental effect on their mental health. “There are some others who continue to feel listlessness and cognitive impairments, which we commonly refer to as brain fog, and find themselves low on motivation. However, it appears that the mood disorders would be a result of the overall stress and implication of a COVID-19 diagnosis rather than the illness itself,” says Kanabar. To understand if there are any chronic effects of COVID-19 on mental health, Kanabar says that we will have to wait for long term studies and data, but so far it is evident that there will be an increased demand for resources for mental health needs and rehabilitation.