Over the course of the pandemic, the coronavirus has presented health experts with a number of grim surprises. What seemed to be a respiratory virus now looks more like one that attacks blood vessels throughout the body. Once contracted, it only seems to confer immunity for a few months. And in some cases, patients "recover" from the virus but still feel sick, often debilitatingly so.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal profiled a 40-year-old Singapore man who contracted coronavirus this spring and still has symptoms more than six months later, including fatigue, chest pain, and heart inflammation. They're so severe he hasn't returned to work or seen his family. He's an extreme case of a "long-hauler," someone who is still suffering ill effects from the disease well after their body has cleared the virus.
"Doctors think people like Mr. Sarker who have survived after being put on a ventilator will likely need at least a year for recovery," the Journal reported, and then quoted an infectious disease expert: "We don't know it will be a year because it hasn't been a year yet."
That's right: Health experts aren't sure when—or if—long COVID subsides in most people. For some, it might become a chronic illness. Here are five of the most common symptoms long haulers have reported. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
According to the Long Hauler Symptom Survey, 100% of COVID patients participating reported prolonged fatigue. Doctors have observed this for months, and it's a phenomenon that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has likened to chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. "We're starting to see more and more people who apparently recover from the actual viral part of it, and then weeks later, they feel weak, they feel tired, they feel sluggish, they feel short of breath," said Fauci in August. "It's very disturbing, because if this is true for a lot of people, then just recovering from this may not be okay. You may have weeks where you feel not exactly correct."
Ongoing chest pain has been reported by many long haulers. One cause is costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that connects ribs to the breastbone. This pain can be worsened by a prolonged cough. According to a July study by the CDC, 43% of people recovering from COVID-19 said their cough hadn't gone away 14 to 21 days after their diagnosis.
Shortness of Breath
COVID-19 causes lung inflammation and damage that can make it hard to catch your breath. This can linger for weeks or months. According to the Long Hauler Symptom Survey, 1,020 out of 1,567 coronavirus patients surveyed reported experiencing this symptom.
COVID-19 seems to cause inflammation throughout the body, including in the lungs, brain and heart. One effect on the heart can be cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle becomes stiff, thickened, or stretched. That affects the heart's ability to pump blood, which can cause issues ranging from mild (fatigue) to severe (organ failure).
Inflammation in the brain can cause a variety of mental and neurological issues. In Long COVID patients, "it is necessary to pay attention not only to physical symptoms such as fatigue and respiratory distress, but also to memory, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders," said Haruo Nakayama, a neurologist at Tokyo's Toho University Ohashi Medical Center, in the Wall Street Journal. According to a recent study published in the Lancet, 55% of people diagnosed with coronavirus reported lingering neurological symptoms three months after being diagnosed.
How to Stay Healthy
As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear your face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.