2020 will forever be the year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a year that saw more than 100 million cases of the virus worldwide, and more than two million deaths. And the worst part is that it’s still ongoing. The good news is that there’s not one, but three approved vaccines and hope on the horizon of finally ending the pandemic in mid 2021.
But what about the people who caught the virus and overcame it? While many are fortunate enough to only have had mild symptoms and a short bout with the pandemic, more and more cases of “long COVID” are emerging, giving scientists pause about the long-term outlook of survivors.
What is “long COVID?”
Long COVID is the name given to a persistent condition of the virus—one that lingers for weeks and even months, dogging the immune systems of people carrying the virus. For most, it’s akin to having a chronic cold or malaise, but what’s happening to their immune system could be far more devastating as time goes on.
Long COVID sufferers have reported extremely mild symptoms from their initial bout of COVID-19—sometimes none at all. Then, they feel better for a week or two, before seeing a gradual decline in their wellness.
The biggest issue with long COVID is the same problem that comes with any chronic illness. The immune system is constantly under duress, fighting a threat that never gives ground. Some days may be better than others, but over time, the baseless for wellness falls lower and lower. It’s a toll that quickly accumulates over weeks and months, and eventually, the immune system wears down.
Unique to long COVID sufferers is a never-ending revolving door of symptoms. Sufferers report one set of symptoms during their initial prognosis—then, symptoms seem to come and go with no rhyme or reason. Today it’s body aches and chills. Tomorrow, it’s a headache and congestion. Some days it’s severe; other days it’s almost non-existent. There’s no telling what’s next or when it will end.
The unknown effects of a long-term virus
Long COVID sufferers face an unknown road to recovery. Scientists know more than they did a year ago about the virus, but there’s still a significant knowledge gap in understanding how it interacts with our bodies, as well as how it evolves. With so much still unknown and so much to be discovered, long COVID sufferers find themselves living with a condition that has so many question marks as to its long-term effects.
Even more, if and when the nuances of COVID-19’s effects on the body do come to fruition, understanding how they affect long-haulers will be another mystery. For many, COVID-19 lasts less than two weeks. For long COVID sufferers, the effects are ongoing. It could be years until we truly understand the lasting ramifications of the virus—and by then, long COVID sufferers will have suffered even more severely.
Coping with long-haul COVID-19
As the pandemic rages on, it’s important for long COVID sufferers to recognize their condition. The first and most important step is to consult with a physician—especially if you continue to test positive for coronavirus. Once you’re a confirmed long-hauler, it’s best to follow your doctor’s recommendations for self-care and isolation.
In addition to this, it’s important to get adequate sleep each night, to maintain a healthy diet and to engage in light exercise daily. For long COVID sufferers, self-care goes a long way toward improving both health and mood. This, coupled with open communication with your physician about how to manage certain bouts and symptoms, is the best approach for long-haulers.
There is hope for long-haulers. For many, the virus slowly fades away and they recover in time. According to the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research, roughly 20% of long haulers will feel better in five weeks; only about 10% of long COVID sufferers experience symptoms for more than 12 weeks. Moreover, vaccine trials show that those with long COVID who receive the vaccine recover in short order—sometimes in as little as a few days. As vaccine rollout ramps up, more and more long-haulers will gain access to the relief they need.
As has been the case with every pandemic in modern history, a period of understanding follows the worst of the waves. We’re entering that phase now, which means scientists are on the verge of understanding why COVID-19 persists and what can be done to mitigate it in long-haulers. Answers are coming for those who can’t understand why they’re still suffering.