The Lasting Effects of ‘Long COVID-19’

By Dr. Karen Smith, The Old North State Medical Society

When travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders began closing companies, institutions, and agencies across the country and around the world in 2020, there was no shortage of rumors and anecdotal information about the quick-spreading coronavirus disease. Now, two years later, even with a lot more knowledge and information about the disease, plus… effective treatments, vaccines, and boosters, some people who were diagnosed and treated for COVID-19 months ago are still dealing with its aftermath; referred to as “long haulers” who are still experiencing symptoms of “long COVID.”

Post-COVID or long-COVID conditions can range from unreported new symptoms, previous returning symptoms that were experienced during an active COVID-19 illness, or perpetual health problems that persist for weeks or months after initial infection. Even individuals who were asymptomatic (or did not display COVID-19 symptoms in the days or weeks after they were initially infected) can have post-COVID conditions and become COVID long-haulers due to extended illness as a result of the virus.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), here are some common symptoms related to long-term COVID-19 infection:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities (also known as post-exertional malaise)
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Cough
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Sleep problems
  • Fever
  • Dizziness on standing (lightheadedness)
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Pins-and-needles feeling
  • Rash
  • Mood changes
  • Change in smell or taste

The effects of long-COVID-19 go well beyond respiratory distress and physical ailments. Depending upon the severity and required treatment, long-COVID may require extended and extensive medical care, which can be costly and may negatively impact household budgets. For individuals without adequate access to health care or medical insurance, the long-term illness can progress and worsen due to lack of treatment. Long-term and persistent illness also can result in job loss or missed days at work or school. The need to protect others from the illness may also create a sense of isolation for people who are required to quarantine from family and friends. And though COVID-19 is a well-known and familiar topic, there may still be social stigma related to the disease and ongoing illness because of the highly contagious nature of the virus.

Treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 have tremendously reduced the spread and the rates of severe illness and death; however, the virus is still circulating and the pandemic is not over. The best way to protect against long-COVID-19 is to prevent infection altogether. For people who are eligible, getting fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 as soon as possible is the most effective way to prevent illness. Physicians still recommend wearing masks for vulnerable populations.

Though mask mandates are disappearing across the country, the 3Ws are still effective in further reducing the spread of COVID-19: 1) Wear a Mask that completely covers your nose and mouth; 2) Wash Your Hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds; and 3) Wait at Least 6 feet apart from others.

Dr. Karen Smith specializes in family medicine in Raeford, North Carolina. For more than 20 years, Dr. Smith has provided treatment for the Hoke County residents of all ages through a family medicine practice that she owns and operates. Dr. Smith is an avid supporter of social service efforts that address rural citizens such as food-related health disparities, afterschool programs and guidance, substance use issues, and sharing pertinent health information. She successfully implemented electronic health records with telehealth as a part of her delivery of care, which provides acute, chronic, and preventive services to the region’s diverse patient population.