Some people experience symptoms several months after infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Known as “long COVID,” the condition can encompass many different types of symptoms.
While long COVID symptoms can affect your everyday life, treatment of many of its symptoms is available. If you recovered from an initial COVID-19 illness but are still experiencing symptoms months later, talk to your doctor.
What Is Long COVID?
Long COVID is new, returning, or continuing symptoms that people experience after having COVID-19.
Most people who have COVID-19 get better within a few days or weeks after their infection subsides. But if symptoms continue or occur in the months after your original illness, you may have long COVID.
Michael Risbano, MD, co-director, UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic, says you should become concerned about long COVID if you are experiencing symptoms three months or more after your original illness.
“The definition of what we would consider long COVID is people who have either new or continued symptoms after their initial infection that persist at a period beyond three months,” Dr. Risbano says.
According to a June 2022 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults who had COVID-19 reported having symptoms of long COVID.
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Who’s at Risk for Long COVID?
Anyone can get long COVID. But some people are more at risk, according to the CDC. Those more at risk for long COVID include:
- People who had more severe initial COVID-19 illness.
- People with underlying health conditions.
- People who did not get the COVID-19 vaccine.
- People who had multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS).
Also, the CDC says people who live and work in places where health disparities exist may be more at risk.
The CDC’s June 2022 report stated:
- Women are more likely than men to have long COVID.
- Older adults are less likely to have long COVID than younger adults.
- Hispanic adults are more likely to have long COVID than non-Hispanic White adults, Black adults, and non-Hispanic Asian adults.
- Bisexual and transgender adults are more likely to have long COVID than adults of other sexual orientations and gender identities.
Can I prevent long COVID?
The best way to prevent long COVID is by getting the COVID-19 vaccine and staying up to date with boosters as recommended by the CDC. For more information or to schedule a vaccine appointment at UPMC, visit Vaccine.UPMC.com.
Long COVID Symptoms
Long COVID can cause symptoms that affect many different parts of your body. According to the CDC, common symptoms include:
- Breathing problems/shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Concentration or thinking problems (“brain fog”).
- Heart palpitations.
- Insomnia/sleep problems.
- Loss or change of smell and taste.
- Menstrual cycle changes.
- Muscle/joint pain.
- “Pins-and-needles” feelings.
- Post-exertional fatigue.
- Stomach pain.
- Tiredness or fatigue.
Often, these symptoms can affect your ability to perform everyday tasks. They also may get worse after physical or mental exertion.
“Some of the main symptoms that we see out there is something called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS),” Dr. Risbano says.
“People go out and do something – they say, ‘I’m having a good day, I’m going to go outside and mow the lawn.’ They go and they mow the lawn. And then for the rest of that day, and probably the next day, they’re wiped out. They can’t do anything. They’ve sort of been spent. People have these waxing and waning symptoms.”
To be considered long COVID, you must not have had symptoms like this before having had COVID-19.
The CDC says people who had COVID-19 also are more likely to develop new conditions like diabetes, heart conditions, or neurological conditions than people who didn’t have COVID-19.
Diagnosing Long COVID
There is no specific test for long COVID. It can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms of long COVID can come from many other health conditions.
“One of the challenges that we have with COVID-19 and sort of identifying what’s wrong or what’s going on is trusting what people tell us when they say, ‘I was OK six months ago, and now, since I’ve had COVID-19, I don’t feel right,'” Dr. Risbano says. “We don’t have a baseline on a lot of these patients, so unless they’ve been in the medical system, we don’t have anything to compare to.”
Evidence of a positive COVID-19 test can be helpful in determining whether you may have long COVID, Dr. Risbano says.
If you had COVID-19 three or more months ago and are experiencing new, returning, or continuing symptoms, call your doctor. You may need to seek treatment for your symptoms.
UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic
The UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic seeks to understand post-COVID conditions. We also provide treatment to people who are experiencing symptoms three months or more after a COVID-19 illness.
The clinic provides an initial assessment of your symptoms. Patients with other symptoms — neurological symptoms or mental health symptoms, for example — are referred to specialists in those areas for further care.
“Since we’re a collaborative clinic, we have other doctors who we can refer patients to,” Dr. Risbano says. “So, we’ll triage things as appropriate.”
If you have respiratory symptoms or exercise intolerance, the clinic will take images and perform other tests. That may include an exercise test: Doctors will assess your condition as you go through a workout on an exercise bike.
The goal is to find the specific cause of your symptoms to determine the right treatment path. Doctors also can see if you’re at risk for more health problems.
For many people with pulmonary symptoms or exercise intolerance, treatment will include cardiopulmonary rehabilitation or physical therapy. The UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic staff will work with you to develop a treatment plan.
“We try to get people back to work,” Dr. Risbano says. “We try to get them back to exerting themselves, exercising, and doing things instead of just sitting around at home.”
No referral is needed for the UPMC Post-COVID Recovery Clinic. If you had COVID-19 more than three months ago and are still experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor about making an appointment.
You also can make an appointment by calling 412-648-6161 and pressing 1 or by using the clinic’s online scheduling portal.
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