You may think that because you are young and healthy, the symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) may not be serious enough to land you in the hospital. First of all…think again. There have been young adults and even children hospitalized who were otherwise healthy. Secondly, even if you were infected and recovered, you may develop long term symptoms that are chronic, lasting more than 3 months. These people are referred to as the “long-haulers”.
While COVID-19 is known for its effect on lung damage, long-haulers report other unusual symptoms that prevent patients from returning to work and their lives fully. To compare this coronavirus with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), exhaustion and crippling fatigue plagued 52% of COVID patients 2 months after leaving the hospital in a study from Rome compared to 40% with longterm fatigue lasting 13-36 months after infection from SARS.
Other studies point to similar concerns: A German study found 78% of COVID-19 patients had lingering heart symptoms 2-3 months post infection. The CDC published a report documenting 35% of COVID-19 patients still had symptoms 3 weeks after diagnosis. Compare this to 10% after influenza. A US study published in August found that 70% of patients had lingering symptoms of shortness of breath and 13.5% still needed oxygen 4 weeks after discharge. CT scans of COVID-19 patients show continued signs of lung damage 12 weeks after hospitalization.
The other reported symptoms are confusion, forgetfulness, memory loss, difficulty focusing, dizziness, and grasping for everyday words. It’s becoming known as “COVID brain fog” and survivors say it impairs their ability to work and function normally. Symptoms vary widely and scientists don’t know what causes it, especially since it also effects people who became only mildly ill and had no previous medical conditions. Some theories are that the bodies immune response to the virus never shuts down and it is persistently activated. Another possible cause could be inflammation in blood vessels that release inflammatory molecules that are toxic to the brain which causes delirium, confusion and other types of altered mental function known as encephalopathy. And then there is the theory that it is an autoimmune reaction, when our antibodies mistakenly attack nerve cells. Some patients with brain fog can also experience respiratory and heart issues which can exacerbate neurological symptoms. So far according to neurologists, MRI scans have not seen damaged brain areas.
The average age of long-haulers is 44 years old, with women disproportionally affected. Women have higher rates of autoimmune disease (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism) and have higher sensitivity to lower oxygen levels.
We have much to learn about COVID-19 post viral syndrome and long term studies are underway to learn more about the nature and potential treatment of long-haulers. We do understand that much of the problem the virus creates stems from damage to the lungs, heart, blood vessels, brain, nervous system, eyes, skin and immune regulation. Underlying chronic diseases are also made worse and critical nutrient levels fall in the wake of the inflammation brought on by the virus.
Natalie Lambert, PhD associate research professor at Indiana University Medical School found nearly 100 different long-term problems of a soon-to-be published survey of close to 4000 patients. Some of these symptoms go well beyond typical COVID symptoms. This global network of COVID survivors whom support, educate and connect to groups of people who are struggling with post COVID syndrome is called the Survivor Corps.
The frustration for patients also is that when they reach out to their primary care physicians for help managing these much lesser-known symptoms, they find that some physicians are unable or unwilling to help patients manage these symptoms due to lack of research. People are seeing cardiologists, neurologists and rheumatologists seeking answers with very little hope or treatment. It has and will continue to take a huge toll on our healthcare system (please vote!). The fact is that facebook has over 100,000 followers on their support group for long-haulers. These patients are suffering physically, mentally and emotionally.
Integrated medicine is uniquely positioned to help long-haulers address the complexity of their symptoms. They are equipped in treating post-viral syndromes for decades which includes re-activated Epstein Barr virus, mononucleosis, West Nile virus, post herpetic neuralgia, Bell’s Palsy, Guillain Barre and influenza. Functional medicine testing can be done to assess inflammation, hormones, GI function, cardiac inflammation, brain function and nutritional status. This way a patient can have personalized treatment through medicines, nutrients, herbs and intravenous nutrient therapy, as well as monitoring the status of how a patient is healing and recovering. Acupuncture and oriental medicine is also an ideal tool in evaluating and treating a patient where western medicine has its limitations.
Prevention from the COVID-19 virus is best by wearing a mask, social distancing and hand washing. But if you have been infected, it is best to seek out someone who will listen and manage your symptoms to help you get back to a fuller recovery.