Over the past two years, new Covid cases and deaths have risen and fallen alongside surges in variants and sub-variants. One constant, say the experts: a continuous increase in long cases of Covid.
The term “long Covid” refers to the wide range of new, ongoing or recurring health conditions that can affect people weeks or months after they have recovered from a Covid infection. Common symptoms include fatigue, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, brain fog, dizziness, stomach pain and altered taste or smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“There is certainly no slowing down in the demand and need for long-term Covid care. It continues to increase,” says Dr. Jason Maley, director of the long-term Covid clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, based in Boston, which is part of a multicenter study. funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Long Covid is estimated to have affected up to 23 million Americans in March, according to the US Government Accountability Office. Part of the problem is that its symptoms can vary from person to person, making it difficult for experts to understand and hard for doctors to diagnose.
“There is still a lot of lack of knowledge and familiarity with long Covid, even within the medical community,” Maley says.
To help you navigate these unknowns, CNBC Make It spoke to a series of longtime Covid experts about what to look for, if you’re at risk, and what tools could help:
How do you know if you have a long Covid?
If you test positive for Covid, Maley says, consider doing a self-check-in about a month after you recover. “Pay attention to common symptoms such as changes in [your] thought, memory and [your] ability to perform well at work or function effectively at home,” he says.
Some of the long Covid symptoms may not seem obviously related to the disease, at first. Take fatigue, for example: Maley says an episode of delayed fatigue, even days after strenuous activity, can be a sign of long Covid.
“You might not feel exhausted when you’re active in the moment, but hours or even a day or two later you can be hit with overwhelming exhaustion,” he says.
According to the CDC, people with “more severe Covid-19 illnesses” and “underlying pre-Covid-19 health conditions” may have a higher risk of developing long Covid-19 symptoms. So this self-registration could be particularly important for anyone hospitalized with Covid or in need of intensive care to recover.
But everyone needs to stay alert: Research published in the scientific journal Pathogens in November 2021 indicates that a small portion of people with long-term Covid were asymptomatic and didn’t even know they had Covid in the first place.
What if you have had Covid for a long time?
Everyone’s experience with long Covid is a little different, says Dr. Thomas Gut, associate director of medicine and director of ambulatory care services at Staten Island University Hospital. Typically, he says, symptoms last about three months. In rarer cases, he notes, this delay can extend to six months or more.
There is currently no comprehensive treatment for long Covid patients, but experts say a few at-home strategies may prove helpful. For example, if you feel a lot of fatigue after recovering from Covid, try to identify the activities that trigger your severe exhaustion and intentionally avoid them for a little while.
“It’s called pacing,” Maley explains.
Stimulation also involves adjusting your daily schedule to include built-in rest periods for both your mind and body to avoid “serious” crashes. Avoiding these bouts of exhaustion can help you recover more effectively from a long Covid, adds Maley.
Maley also says his patients who suffer from shortness of breath often find yoga-based breathing exercises helpful — long, slow breaths in and deep breaths out through the nose. He says that certain breathing exercises help strengthen your breathing muscles, while others help control breathing and the sensations of breathing.
Typically, long-time Covid patients have no damage to lung function, Maley says: “We think [the shortness of breath] may relate to the muscles and nerves that control breathing, rather than an injury in the lungs such as a scar or something left over from the infection.”
Does getting vaccinated help prevent long Covid?
The CDC notes that unvaccinated people may be at higher risk of developing a long post-Covid infection. Maley says most of the studies so far have been “a bit mixed when it comes to the strength of protection that can provide.”
Dr. Nisha Viswanathan, co-director of the UCLA Health COVID-19 Outpatient Surveillance Program and the Long COVID Program, agrees. “From our early studies, we know that about one in three people who [were] unvaccinated were showing signs of long Covid,” she says. But now, with a mixed population of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, researchers are looking to find out more clearly who still has long-term symptoms.
Covid vaccines can lessen the severity of illness for people infected with the virus. Similarly, Maley says, several studies suggest that vaccinated people who develop long Covid have less severe symptoms than unvaccinated people with long Covid.
But, he adds, he cannot guarantee that being vaccinated would completely protect anyone against the long Covid – at least not without further research.
Who is most at risk?
Gut notes that recent mutations in the Covid virus are causing increasingly milder infections – and since milder infections appear to be causing fewer long Covid cases, he does not expect the next wave to create a long surge of Covid.
Yet, Maley says, he is currently seeing patients of all age groups with long-lasting Covid symptoms, mostly in young adults. Some studies have also long suggested that Covid affects women more than men.
The reason for this, Maley says, is not yet known.
Viswanathan says most of his long Covid patients already had pre-existing conditions like cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol and obesity. “So the ways to help prevent [long Covid]in addition to vaccination, really consist of eating more cleanly [and] exercise regularly,” she says.
It’s not a “foolproof” strategy, says Viswanathan: Many otherwise healthy individuals still develop Covid for a long time.
“But I will say that their number is much lower,” she adds.
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