What are the long-term side effects of COVID-19?

Most people who have COVID-19 expect their symptoms to disappear after a few weeks, but some continue to experience effects months after recovery.

Dr. Fidaa Shaib, a pulmonary expert at Baylor College of Medicine, says people who suffer from persistent symptoms after recovering from the acute illness, also known as “long-haulers,” are often healthy prior to getting infected with COVID-19. This can occur in up to 10% of those infected with the virus.

“The acute illness when uncomplicated will normally last about two to three weeks,” Shaib said. “Symptoms persisting beyond a month is where we are seeing more of a chronic or long-lasting effect.”

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Common long-term COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A lingering cough
  • Chest pain and heart palpitations
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Fatigue with limited ability to exercise or even perform activities of daily living
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Sleep disturbances with insomnia and sleepiness during the daytime
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and indigestion.
  • Depressed mood and anxiety

While some long-haul symptoms of COVID-19 appear harmless, Shaib says ones that affect the lungs, heart and brain are more concerning and should be monitored by a physician:

  • Persistent respiratory symptoms related to lung injury or pneumonia from the virus, like chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • Cardiovascular symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue or fast heartbeat
  • Symptoms that affect the brain are mostly related to memory loss and inability to focus, but signs of weakness, seizures, anxiety and depression could also be a long-term side effect.
Prevention and treatment

Because long-term effects of COVID-19 vary from person to person, it is difficult to determine when they will end. Shaib says the best approach is to be evaluated by your physician or a specialized post-COVID clinic – especially if you have persistent symptoms that are affecting your quality of life. It is also important to seek help if symptoms of anxiety, fear and depressed mood develop.

“It is advisable to get an evaluation so that we can assess the impact of the illness on your health and evaluate different organs that could have been affected,” she said. “Some patients are experiencing hard-to-explain symptoms, and are therefore anxious and frightened; those are the patients I want to encourage to seek help and learn more about this illness.

Shaib also recommends embracing a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep, when recovering from a viral illness. While it takes time, slowly reintroducing physical activity is another way to help your body recover.

“I want this to be a message of hope that this could happen to you, but there are things we can do to help as we continue to learn more about this illness,” she said. “I think the message for people is to keep going – sleep well, eat healthy and monitor your health so that you can get stronger again.”

Dr. Shaib is a professor of medicine in the section of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Baylor.

-By Kaylee Dusang

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