At least 32 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID since the start of the pandemic, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And now, one of the biggest challenges with the virus—in addition to getting the country vaccinated against it—is the long-term effects it's having on many patients. Jason Maley, MD, a Harvard Medical School instructor in medicine who oversees a program for COVID survivors, says as many has 20 percent of patients experience long COVID.
If you're wondering if you're just having some lingering symptoms or if it's something more serious, John Brooks, MD, Chief Medical Officer for CDC's COVID-19 Response Team, says there's a tell-tale sign of long COVID that warrants a trip to the doctor's office. Keep reading to find out what it is, and for more on how COVID can stick around, Dr. Fauci Says These Are the COVID Symptoms That Don't Go Away.
The CDC doctor says see a professional if you're having symptoms you've never had before.
"If you're having symptoms you haven't had before, something new following COVID [such as] chest pain, difficulty breathing, you can't get your thinking clearly, you're just not getting better the way you thought you should, have a low threshold to seek care," Brooks said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on May 5, according to CNBC—meaning, don't hesitate just because you don't think it's serious.
On its website, the CDC explains that long COVID includes "a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 or can appear weeks after infection." People with long COVID, which is clinically referred to as Post-Acute Sequelae of Covid-19 (PASC), have reported experiencing "brain fog" or difficulty thinking, fatigue, headache, loss of smell or taste, dizziness upon standing, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches, fever, and depression or anxiety.
And for more how you might react to COVID, check out COVID Leaves This in Your Body Even If You're Asymptomatic, New Study Says.
Certain groups are more likely to come down with long COVID.
Long COVID can affect anyone who's had the virus, the CDC notes. But speaking to the House committee on May 5, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), warned that people who have been hospitalized with the virus are much more likely to have long COVID symptoms arise. Additionally, women, older age groups, and obese people are most likely to experience long COVID.
As for the reasons why COVID affects some patients for a long stretch of time, the experts at Medical News Today say possible causes include "a reduced or lack of response from the immune system, relapse or reinfection of the virus, inflammation or a reaction from the immune system, deconditioning, and post-traumatic stress."
And for more COVID news, check out Dr. Fauci Says "Herd Immunity" Is No Longer the Goal With COVID—This Is.
As many as 1 in 3 COVID patients with mild cases experience long-lasting symptoms.
The CDC explains that long COVID can affect anyone who has had COVID-19, even if their case was mild or asymptotic, a notion backed up a study from researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle published in JAMA Network Open in February. The study found that approximately 30 percent of participants who were not hospitalized due to the virus have reported long COVID symptoms.
The researchers collected data by having 177 people (men and women between 18 and 94 years old) who'd had COVID fill out a survey up to nine months after their illness. The two most common symptoms they couldn't shake were fatigue and loss of sense of smell or taste, both of which almost 14 percent of participants experienced.
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While there's still a lot that's unknown about long COVID, there are ways for doctors to diagnose it.
Brooks explained that a primary care doctor can help patients make sense of what they are feeling, whether it is side effects of COVID or possibly another underlying illness, he explained.
According to Medical News Today, doctors can diagnose long COVID by running blood tests to check full blood count, electrolytes, kidney function, liver function, troponin (for heart muscle damage), inflammation levels, muscle damage, D-dimer (for blood clots), heart health and iron levels. They may also take chest X-rays, check urine, or follow through with an electrocardiogram.
And for more on life after the pandemic, check out America Will "Feel Close to Normal" by This Exact Date, COVID Expert Says.