The complexities of COVID can make recovery an uphill battle, particularly for those who are experiencing long-term effects of the illness. But there are ways of staying ahead of this health anomaly. We give you some tips on how to protect yourself and your family for the new year.
By Lennie Omalza | Photos submitted
Fatigue, brain fog, headaches, loss of taste and smell. These are all common symptoms of long-term COVID — and they can persist for months. The fact that these issues even exist, however, isn’t a surprise to medical professionals.
“With viruses, there’s oftentimes a post-viral syndrome,” explains Candice Gray-Cunningham, a nurse practitioner at Norton Infectious Diseases Institute Long-term COVID-19 Care Clinics. “Even [with] something like mononucleosis, you can experience a post-viral syndrome for two to three months. And while COVID’s post-viral syndrome is unique in that it seems to be longer, it’s not unique in that we see symptoms after a viral illness.”
Candice says simply knowing this fact helps to normalize these symptoms, which are considered long-term once a patient has been experiencing them for 12 weeks. They often include heart palpitations, dizziness, hair loss, fatigue, brain fog, headaches, and issues with taste and smell.
Former WAVE-3 anchor and meteorologist Lauren Jones, now Broadcast Media Manager at French Lick Resort, is all too familiar with many of these symptoms. It has been more than a year since she tested positive for COVID-19, but she is still feeling its effects. “In the months and weeks that followed [my diagnosis],” she says, “I experienced everything from excruciating migraines and a burning sensation in my nose; shortness of breath; extreme fatigue; loss of taste and smell; irregular menstrual cycles; my hair started falling out; and I eventually started to experience what is now referred to as brain fog.”
Fatigue and brain fog typically last longer than anything else, with pre-existing conditions potentially prolonging certain symptoms. Neurological problems, such as seizures and concussion, for example, could prolong brain fog.
Pre-existing conditions or a lack thereof, however, don’t determine whether a patient will experience long-term COVID. “We do see people who do not have any preexisting conditions who do experience these symptoms,” Candice says. “We’re not exactly sure why. It may be that there is direct invasion of tissue by the virus; maybe inflammation; maybe microvascular issues like clotting; maybe autoimmune response. There are several theories, but as far as we know, there’s not an exact determination of these causes.”
According to stats pulled from the clinic in October 2021, 80% of the patients were female — but it’s difficult to determine if this is because women are more likely to experience long-term symptoms, or if less men are seeking care. “It’s hard to know,” Candice says, “but women are more likely to have some illnesses, like fibromyalgia, [and] we do see a common connection between fibromyalgia and long-term symptoms.”
The best way to prevent long-term symptoms, she adds, is to get vaccinated; take precautions to avoid contracting COVID in the first place; and stay as healthy as possible by maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress and anxiety.
Many of the patients Candice has seen come through the doors of the clinic have co-morbid conditions such as obesity and hypertension. Were these patients more likely to get COVID because of those pre-existing conditions? Or were they more likely to experience long-term COVID because of said conditions? That remains to be determined. Either way, their symptoms will likely improve.
“People get very worried because oftentimes they’re normal, functioning people and suddenly they have heart palpitations, a little brain fog, [or an] altered sense of taste and smell,” Candice says. “These symptoms are very worrying for someone who’s never had an illness … [and] that creates a lot of anxiety and fear. [But] I would say these symptoms will likely resolve.”
Lauren attests that many of her symptoms greatly improved with time. However, she still suffers from migraines, and meets with a team of therapists at Norton Healthcare every week. “I’ve seen tremendous improvement, but I know my road to healing isn’t over yet,” she says. “I’m beyond grateful to our healthcare heroes, especially those who’ve touched my life in ways they’ll never know, for their love, dedication, and unwavering compassion in the face of this virus.”
Candice adds that if someone is experiencing what they think is long-term COVID symptoms, it’s a good idea to rule out other possible causes. With heart palpitations, for example, she’d recommend checking with primary care or cardiology; having assessments done will ensure the palpitations aren’t the result of a sustained arrhythmia. If symptoms aren’t being caused by other issues, the next step is to take care of yourself and wait it out.
Though some symptoms can be eased with different therapies, most must simply run their course. There is a therapy, however, that Candice recommends to newly diagnosed COVID patients: monoclonal antibodies, which are an option for people with certain risk factors. “This therapy has been very effective at helping keep people out of the hospital,” she says. “It’s very effective; it’s safe. I would encourage people [who] test positive to ask their providers about monoclonal antibodies.”
“I’VE SEEN TREMENDOUS IMPROVEMENT, BUT I KNOW MY ROAD TO HEALING ISN’T OVER YET.” — Lauren Jones
Follow Lauren Jones’ COVID journey on her Facebook page.