The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States early in January this year. But after many months more than 5 million cases have been confirmed, yet, the medical community is still learning about the virus, plus, the fact that many patients are still experiencing symptoms for up to five months after they’re declared recovered enough to go.
These patients are known as “long-haulers,” a non-medical term used to refer to those living with lingering COVID-19 symptoms.
According to Janice Johnston, medical director of Redirect Health in Scottsdale, Arizona, “the bulk of patients that contract COVID-19 recover completely within one to two weeks, but those with more serious symptoms can take up to three to four weeks to fully recover.”
As for long-haulers, she said, “it’s not really clear just yet who is most at risk of having these lingering symptoms, but it does seem to impact those considered to be high-risk and those with more severe symptoms.”
These symptoms, which include cardiac, neurological, and other issues, can be challenging, frustrating, debilitating, and life-altering. according to HuffPost who spoke with medical experts and long-haulers to give a full picture of what it’s really like to deal with long-COVID, according to their own experience.
Shortness of breath, cough, and tightness of the chest
Johnston said the most common lingering symptoms seen in long-haulers are similar to those seen during the acute phase of the coronavirus, such as shortness of breath, a cough, and chest tightness.
She said she has noticed that patients who were ventilated due to respiratory failure and/or because of blood clots were the same ones who had the most challenges getting back to normal, everyday activity after recovery.
“Their lung function and overall muscle mass take a long time to recover, often needing multiple medications, inhalers, oxygen, and physical therapy to gain back strength,” Johnston said.
Sandy Rairdan, a 60-year-old from Arizona, said that her lung capacity has been poor since she was diagnosed with COVID-19 two months ago.
“I can’t really go much past a half an hour of walking,” she said. “I have been able to swim a bit which is good for my lungs. I had a blood test done and my liver isn’t functioning properly, and my blood platelets are not where they are supposed to be. My bloodwork showed that I had experienced severe trauma. I had a lung X-ray though and everything is clear, so that has been very encouraging.”
Another common symptom of long-COVID is overwhelming fatigue. Johnston said she has not only seen this in patients but has also experienced it herself since contracting COVID-19 in June.
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Rairdan also noted exhaustion as a major part of her experience. “Fatigue is a big one and I imagine that will hang on for a while,” she said.
Aluko A. Hope, co-director of Montefiore Health System’s COVID Recovery Engagement (CORE) Clinic in the Bronx, New York, attributes the fatigue to the “physical, emotional, and cognitive work of recovering from this serious illness [taking] its toll on the body.”
“For example, patients who are recently discharged from a serious COVID-related illness may have trouble walking up and downstairs because their muscles are not back to full strength,” Hope said. “This means a simple task like answering a phone call or picking up the mail during the day could push this patient to their physical limits.”
Jennifer Haythe, a critical care cardiologist at Columbia University Medical Center, said she has seen patients with “persistent heart failure syndromes ― low ejection fraction, meaning the heart is weak and not pumping properly ― and myocarditis or inflammation of the heart, which can cause chronic chest pain and heart arrhythmias.”
COVID-19 is known to affect blood flow — which means it can impact your hearing. Shelley Borgia, a doctor of audiology and founder of NYC Hearing Associates, said that in the same way “adequate blood circulation is essential throughout the rest of our body, it’s equally as important in our cochlea, or inner ear cavity. When that blood flow is damaged or slowed, it can lead to hearing loss.”
“So if a patient is infected with COVID-19, the lack of blood and oxygen throughout their systems can also restrict their ability to hear,” she said.
Borgia said she has seen patients who’ve experienced “total, sudden loss, and others who struggled to understand speech.”
“Most commonly, my patients are encountering persistent ringing or hissing sounds in their ears, also known as tinnitus,” she explained. “As an ‘invisible’ condition without an external source present, tinnitus is often unique to each individual.”