Long COVID. Post-COVID syndrome. Long-term COVID. The lingering health challenges that some people experience after having COVID-19 are known by many names. And those living with the lasting effects of the coronavirus are often called COVID-19 long-haulers.
What makes someone a COVID long-hauler? What types of long-term symptoms are they experiencing? And is there any way to prevent the long-term effects of the coronavirus? Keep reading to learn more.
What is a COVID-19 long-hauler?
Most of the time when people get COVID-19, they get better within a couple weeks. But sometimes, people who had COVID-19 continue to experience new or ongoing symptoms for a month or even longer. These people are considered COVID-19 long-haulers.
For people with long-haul COVID-19, recovery can feel like a marathon and not a sprint. In fact, a few people who got COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic still have symptoms.
Other viruses, like the seasonal flu, can also have long-haul symptoms that last for a long time. But it appears that long COVID-19 is more common – and the ongoing symptoms can be more severe.
Long-haul COVID-19 symptoms
COVID-19 is an infection that primarily affects your lungs and ability to breathe. However, in more severe cases, being sick with COVID-19 can cause a range of problems for your heart, blood vessels, kidneys, brain, skin and the rest of your body. In fact, scientists have counted more than 200 possible long COVID-19 symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common post-COVID-19 symptoms include:
- Lung issues (difficulty breathing, shortness of breath or lingering cough)
- Heart problems (chest pain or a rapidly beating heart)
- Neurological issues (“brain fog”, dizziness or headaches)
- Mental health concerns (mood changes)
- Changes in taste or smell
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Pain (in the stomach, joints, muscles or chest)
- Symptoms that worsen after physical or mental activities
- Pins-and-needles feeling
- Sleep problems
- Changes in menstrual period cycles
Below, we go into more detail about the long-haul symptoms that can occur and what to expect.
Vascular problems after COVID-19
COVID-19 seems to target the single layer of cells lining every blood vessel – this layer is called the endothelium. If your endothelial cells are damaged, there is a possibility that you could develop blood clots throughout your body. Blood clots can make it hard for oxygen-rich blood to get where it needs to go. So depending on where and if blood clots form, COVID-19 can cause symptoms in the heart, lungs, brain, arms, legs and other parts of the body.
Lung issues after COVID-19
Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing or a lingering cough after COVID-19 are signs that you may have post-COVID lung complications. Whether you’ll get lung damage depends on a few things, including the severity of your original symptoms, other health conditions, treatment and recovery.
For example, if you had severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome during COVID-19, it could take a while to get better, and you may need a doctor to help manage your symptoms.
How to improve lung health after COVID-19
One thing that can help with your recovery is exercising your lungs. Start with gentle physical exercise like walking or biking – gradually increasing the duration and intensity of the activity. Breathing exercises can help, too.
When to contact the doctor
It’s always a good idea to contact your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. In addition, contact them if you have:
- New or increased cough
- New or increased shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- New or worsening chest pain
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend pulmonary rehabilitation to improve lung function.
Heart problems after COVID-19
Your chance of getting COVID-19 heart damage depends on how healthy your heart was before COVID-19 and what happened when you were sick.
COVID-19, especially severe cases, can put a lot of stress on your heart. If you had heart disease before getting the coronavirus, it could increase the chance of rapid heart rate and chest pain after COVID-19.
But according to the American Heart Association, there is data showing that even people without heart problems before COVID-19 may have long-haul cardiac symptoms. And some people may end up with heart problems, even if their initial COVID-19 symptoms were minor.
How to improve heart health after COVID-19
There are things you can do at home to promote heart health after COVID-19 and being active is one of them. Getting daily exercise can make your heart stronger.
When to contact your doctor
If you’re not sure you’re healthy enough for exercise, check with your doctor first. Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehabilitation to improve how well your heart works.
Also, if you feel like your heart is beating too hard or too fast, skipping a beat or fluttering, you may be experiencing heart palpitations after COVID-19 and you should contact your doctor. Most importantly, if you experience warning signs of a heart attack – such as dizziness or lightheadedness, chest pain and shortness of breath – call 911 right away.
Neurological problems after COVID-19
In some cases, people with long COVID-19 can have memory and communication problems. But more often, the symptoms after recovery are less severe and include:
- Brain fog
How to improve brain health after COVID-19
Getting exercise, sleeping well, eating a healthy diet and managing stress related to COVID-19 can go a long way toward keeping your head clear. If you find yourself forgetting to take your medications or missing activities, try using a day planner or setting up calendar reminders on your smart phone.
When to contact your doctor
If headaches and brain fog after COVID-19 are getting in the way of your daily life, talk to your doctor about activities and treatment that may help.
Skin problems after COVID-19
If you had skin problems while you were sick with COVID-19, they can last for months after your illness. It’s also possible to get a rash after you’ve recovered from COVID-19. The following are the most common skin problems that can happen during and after COVID-19:
- Rashes – If you have a COVID-19 rash after recovery, you may have large areas of inflamed skin that appear suddenly as smooth raised areas – this type of rash is known as hives. You may also have a widespread rash with tiny lumps or blisters that can be itchy or scaly.
- “COVID toes” – Getting sick with COVID-19 may have caused your toes and fingers to become tender and look darker than the rest of your skin. If you have lighter skin, your toes and fingers may even look purple. Because this condition mostly happens to toes, it’s generally referred to as “COVID toes.”
What to do about skin problems or rashes after COVID-19 recovery
To recover from COVID-19 skin problems, all you usually need is time.
COVID-19 toes go away as the skin peels, leaving behind skin that looks and feels normal. But the process can take 12 weeks or more. If your toes are uncomfortable during the healing process, applying hydrocortisone cream may help.
COVID-19 rash recovery time can depend on the type of rash you have. For example, hives are usually gone within a week. But if you have scaly spots all over your body, it may take 3 weeks or more for your rash to go away.
If your rash is itchy, apply a thick moisturizer or petroleum jelly (Vaseline). It’s also a good idea to leave the rash uncovered as much as possible and stay out of the heat and sun. If your rash is still causing discomfort, try using an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Claritin).
When to talk to your doctor
If creams and OTC medicines aren’t helping your COVID-19 toes or skin rash, make an appointment with your doctor. If you want treatment right away, start a Virtuwell visit. But if a rash on your face is causing swelling in your tongue or lips, seek emergency help.
Mental health challenges
Having COVID-19 can be scary and treatment in a hospital’s intensive care unit can be overwhelming, especially if you need a ventilator to breathe. What we’ve found is that people who’ve overcome severe COVID-19 are more likely to develop depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Dealing with grief and loss is also challenging because survivors may have unresolved pain or fatigue following COVID-19. Just remember, you don’t have to go through it alone – there are people who want to be there for you.
How to improve mental health after COVID-19
It can also be helpful to talk about your experience, so look for a support group. There are mobile apps that can help, too. For example, myStrength is an app designed to provide emotional health support to HealthPartners members.
Also, take time to participate in activities that lift your spirits. Spending time outdoors and doing physical activities are proven mood boosters.
When to talk to your doctor
Talk to a doctor or a therapist if your mood is negatively impacting your daily life or if mood changes last for more than a few weeks. And call 911 if you have thoughts or intent to harm yourself or others.
Loss of taste or smell
Most people who get COVID-19 call out the loss of taste or smell as one of the early symptoms. In some cases, these senses are completely gone, while in others, things smelled or tasted bad or different.
Some COVID-19 survivors regain these senses within a couple weeks, but for others it can take much longer. Studies are ongoing about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on taste and smell, but at this point, it looks like most people will get better within a year.
When to contact your doctor
If it’s been a few months and your sense of smell and taste haven’t come back, talk to your doctor. There may be therapy options to help you smell and taste again.
Who gets long COVID-19?
About half of adults have lingering symptoms after COVID-19. Long COVID-19 in children is less common. There’s no way to say who’ll get long COVID-19, but there are some things that make it more likely:
- Having other medical conditions – Those with serious or chronic medical conditions may have a higher chance of long-haul symptoms. For example, one study found that having type 2 diabetes makes long COVID-19 much more likely.
- The severity of your illness – If you had severe COVID-19, you may be more likely to have significant symptoms that disrupt your daily life. But you can still have long COVID-19, even if you had few or minor symptoms in the beginning.
- Being a woman – Women, even those who are younger or who had mild illness, seem to be at greater risk of long COVID-19 than men. An estimated 60-80% of COVID-19 long-haulers are women.
- Being unvaccinated – Studies show that people who are fully vaccinated are about half as likely to develop long-haul symptoms, even if they get breakthrough COVID-19. The vaccine is especially effective at preventing long COVID in adults over the age of 60.
While we don’t yet know exactly why long COVID-19 happens, the scientific community thinks it may have to do with damage to blood vessels or the brain, autoimmune effects or underlying infection. Research is underway to learn if certain people are more likely to continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 over the long-term and how best to treat these effects.
Are you still contagious if you have long COVID-19?
No. Most people who get COVID-19 aren’t contagious once it’s been 10 days since their first symptoms and 24 hours since they’ve had a fever. If you get to that point and most of your symptoms have improved, the COVID-19 virus should be out of your system. And, if you don’t have active coronavirus in your system, you won’t be able to pass it on.
The only way you would be contagious is if you got COVID-19 again. If you haven’t done so already, get a COVID-19 vaccine – it’s the best way to strengthen your defenses against current and future variants of COVID-19. Staying on top of COVID-19 vaccine booster shots and immunocompromised doses helps, too.
If you’d like more information, check out the CDC’s recommendations for minimizing the impact of COVID-19.
Treatment for long-term COVID-19 effects
The treatment you’ll need for long COVID-19 will likely depend on the severity of your symptoms. If you’re experiencing any long COVID-19 symptoms, talk to your primary care doctor. They’ll help diagnose your symptoms and create a personalized treatment plan to get you on the road to recovery.
In some cases, your doctor may suggest rehabilitation in a COVID-19 aftercare clinic that focuses on:
- Cardiac rehabilitation to improve heart function
- Pulmonary rehabilitation to improve lung function
- Physical therapy or occupational therapy to support walking, mobility, self-care and regaining your sense of taste and smell
Will getting a vaccination help with post-COVID-19 syndrome?
It’s likely. Studies show that getting vaccinated while experiencing long COVID-19 symptoms may reduce the length or severity of symptoms.
What’s the best way to prevent long COVID-19?
According to the CDC, one of the best ways to avoid getting COVID-19 and the long-haul symptoms that sometimes follow, is to get a COVID-19 vaccine and the appropriate booster shots as soon as you can – whether you’ve had COVID-19 or not.
Stay in contact with your doctor – and stay informed about COVID-19
If you’re experiencing long-haul COVID-19 and would like help managing your symptoms, follow-up with your primary care doctor. There are ways to manage the long-term effects of COVID-19 – and we’re here to help.
Your doctor can help you set goals to try to ease your most bothersome symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to post COVID-19 rehab.