Now that we're more than a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, chances are you know at least one person who has had the viral infection. Maybe you've even had it yourself. And while an estimated one-third of those who get COVID never experience symptoms, that leaves a lot of people who have to deal with—and recover from—cases ranging from mild to severe.
While we know exponentially more about SARS-CoV-2 than we did one year ago, there's a lot that doctors and scientists still don't know about it and the resulting infection—specifically, about the recovery process. For some people, having COVID-19 can feel similar to having a bad cold or flu. For others afflicted with moderate cases, symptoms may be scarier and unlike anything they've dealt with before, but still not severe enough to know whether professional care or a trip to the hospital is necessary. And finally, there are people who have life-threatening COVID infections that require immediate medical intervention.
Because of the wide range of symptoms and severity of cases, there is not yet a single standard COVID-19 treatment that works for everyone. The good news, however, is that after more than a year of treating patients with the viral infection, doctors now have a better idea of what might help them recover from it. They're learning more every day about the different effects of post-COVID inflammation and lingering symptoms. Here's what to know about what you can do to help your body recover from COVID-19.
Common Symptoms of COVID-19
By this point, most people could list the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 from memory, but here’s a quick refresher.
COVID symptoms can differ significantly from person to person. While the virus does cause some people to become severely ill, most cases are minimally symptomatic or totally asymptomatic, says David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
According to Cutler, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:
Fever or chills
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Muscle or body aches
New loss of taste and/or smell
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Additionally, Bill Cornwell, MD, a cardiologist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital who works with patients at the hospital’s Post-COVID Clinic, notes that some of the symptoms in more serious cases of the infection may include severe difficulty breathing, chest pressure and/or pain, and confusion. “Individuals with these symptoms should seek medical care immediately since they are an indication of a severe infection that may require hospitalization,” he says.
Are There Treatments for Coronavirus?
Although having multiple safe and effective COVID vaccines is a game changer for prevention, medical professionals are still trying to identify the best ways to treat the infection—as well as its symptoms, ranging from respiratory issues to digestive and cognitive challenges. “While acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with fever, and ibuprofen (Advil) may help headaches, neither will alter the course of the disease,” Dr. Cutler says.
But unlike in the spring of 2020, physicians today have a few items in their COVID-treating toolkits, including monoclonal antibodies, which, if given early in a person’s infection, “is proven to prevent hospitalizations,” according to Dr. Cutler. Unfortunately, because the treatment has to be administered soon after the onset of symptoms, those who wait to get tested may miss their window to receive monoclonal antibodies, allowing the virus to run its usual (though varied) course.
“For patients with severe infections that require a hospitalization, doctors and nurses may give additional medications such as antivirals (remdesivir), steroids (dexamethasone), and blood-thinners to avoid blood clots,” Dr. Cornwell says.
Treating post-COVID inflammation presents another set of challenges, Dr. Cutler notes. “That’s because the body must trigger inflammation in order to destroy the invading virus before it causes serious harm,” he says. “On the other hand, as the disease progresses, the inflammation may get out of hand and end up doing more harm than the virus itself.”
Dealing With Dietary Deficiencies
With limited proven treatment options, some physicians like Rhonda Mattox, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and physician in Arkansas, are working with their patients on strategies for managing (and, ideally, reducing) ongoing symptoms like brain fog and fatigue by paying close attention to their diet. This is not to say that changing a patient’s eating habits will make all of their post-COVID symptoms disappear, but if they’re also deficient in vital nutrients, dealing with that could assist their body as it recovers from COVID.
“I recognize that people with nutritional deficiencies can present with poor energy,” Dr. Mattox explains. “I'm on high alert for deficiencies in magnesium, iron, and vitamins B and D in these individuals.” For example, Dr. Mattox says that people who are magnesium deficient are more likely to experience insomnia that leads to fatigue the following day, while those who lack iron tend to deal with low energy levels, in addition to fatigue. “I frequently encourage patients to eat foods rich in magnesium, like fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds,” she says. “I also recommend leafy greens: think kale, spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, and mustard greens, which are rich in magnesium and iron.”
There’s No Set Timeline for COVID Recovery
Similar to the wide range of symptoms, the recovery process and timeline can vary significantly between COVID patients. At this point, it’s still unclear what exactly causes some cases to be more severe than others. But perhaps even more puzzling is why so many people who are considered “recovered” from mild or moderate coronavirus infections continue to experience symptoms—which can be different and/or worse than the ones they dealt with during their initial illness.
This condition, officially referred to as “Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19” (PASC), but better known as “long-hauler” syndrome, still very much remains a mystery, and, for that reason, is the subject of a wave of new research. According to Dr. Cornwell, patients with PASC “frequently experience profound fatigue, weakness, and difficulty or complete inability to exercise or participate in normal activities of daily living,” along with brain fog and the sensation of a racing heartbeat.
Not only can these symptoms persist for several months, but some people who were infected in March and April 2020 are still dealing with them more than a year later, with no clear end in sight. Currently, there are no medications available to treat or cure PASC, but Dr. Cornwell says that exercise may help to resolve this syndrome—or at least reduce the severity of symptoms for some. (Though given the physical limitations many people with PASC face, exercise isn’t an option for everyone.)
Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that despite the significant scientific and medical advancements made in the past year, we’re dealing with a novel virus and still have a lot to learn. “Much more research is needed in this area, since many patients with COVID-19 may go on to experience the long-hauler syndrome, and the symptoms can be quite disabling,” Dr. Cornwell says.
In the meantime, if you are experiencing long-term symptoms after having COVID (even if your case was mild or even asymptomatic), discussing them with your doctor is the first step in helping your body recover from the virus.