What do we know about long COVID?

Echo Dale Regional Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Echo Dale Regional Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

Three months ago, my friend contracted COVID-19 infection. He is 75+ years old with cardiac and other medical conditions. He got COVID-19 infection although he was fully vaccinated with four COVID immunization shots. His COVID test was positive for about 10 days. At-home antigen tests may return positive results for 10 days – or even longer, up to 14 days. He was seriously ill for four days. He survived.  He is currently negative for COVID-19. But he continuous to have multiple symptoms.

He has significant fatigue and joint and muscle ache. Lower back stiffness and pain comes and goes several times a day.  His memory is not very good. He thinks he has “brain fog”. His symptoms sound like long COVID. He wonders how long is this going to last.

1. What is long COVID?

Most people recover fully after contracting COVID-19 infection. But current evidence suggests approximately 10 to 20 per cent of people experience a variety of mid- and long-term effects after they recover from their initial illness.

World Health Organization (WHO) website says, “If you have recovered from COVID-19 but are still experiencing some symptoms, you could have what is known as post-COVID condition. This is also referred to as ‘long COVID’ sometimes.”

2. How common is long COVID?

WHO estimates 10 – 20 per cent of people who have COVID will develop post-COVID conditions, which would mean that Canada has at least 388,000 long COVID patients. To date, 3.8 million Canadians have had COVID-19 (COVID-19 epidemiology update – Health Canada website).

Among people age 65 and older, 1 in 4 has at least one medical condition that might be due to COVID-19. Women, and people who already had poor physical or mental health have increased risk of long COVID.

3. What are the symptoms? How long do the symptoms last?

Some of the most common symptoms of post COVID-19 condition include shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction, which people call “brain fog”, as well as fatigue. Those are the three most common. Cognitive dysfunction involves difficulty with mental process to learn, process and communicate.

It is estimated more than 100 to 200 symptoms can be associated with long COVID. Symptoms can get worse with physical and mental effort. Statistics show nine per cent of people are unable to return to work after three months.

4. Diagnosis

Diagnosis of long COVID is made by ruling out other disorders with similar symptoms. Right now, there is no test to confirm the diagnosis.

Diagnosing long COVID remains a big challenge. And long COVID symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, and other symptoms are fairly nonspecific.

5. What is “brain fog”?

“Brain fog” is not a medical condition. If you have difficulty thinking then you have “brain fog”. It has been found some patients after recovering from COVID-19 infection have short-term memory loss, confusion and difficulty concentrating. It feels as if you’re driving through a fog.

6. Conclusion

A research paper published on September 7, 2022 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry from Harvard says people who felt stressed, anxious, lonely, depressed or worried about COVID before getting infected were at higher risk of developing long-term symptoms from their illness.

Physical activity and relaxation techniques can be valuable tools to help you remain calm and continue to protect your health during this time. WHO recommends 150 minutes of moderate- intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, or a combination of both

So, I say to my friend, post COVID-19 symptoms may last anywhere from three months to a year. Nobody knows. Sometimes the symptoms can go away and come back. We are still learning about this disease.

It is important to prevent COVID-19 infection, that will prevent the development of post COVID- 19 condition. Prevention is better than cure.

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