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Long COVID: Signs you’re a long-hauler

If you experience symptoms more than 28 days after being diagnosed with COVID-19, you may be considered a “long-hauler” or have what physicians refer to as “long COVID.”

“These are terms for patients who have lingering symptoms after being diagnosed with COVID-19,” says Saju Mathew, M.D., a Piedmont primary care physician. “Thirty-three percent of patients have lingering symptoms nine months after they were diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Why does COVID-19 cause long-term symptoms?

While experts still don’t know exactly why COVID-19 can have lasting effects, Dr. Mathew says the virus likely causes an inflammatory response in the body, which can lead to different symptoms and outcomes.

“The COVID-19 virus can affect the entire body,” he explains. “There’s really no organ this virus doesn’t affect.”

Long COVID symptoms

The most common long COVID symptoms are:

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Fatigue

  • Brain fog, like trouble articulating words or tripping over objects when you walk

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

Who’s most likely to be a COVID long-hauler?

Medical experts aren’t sure why some people develop long-term COVID-19 symptoms, says Dr. Mathew. However, you may be more susceptible to long COVID if you had a severe course of the illness. He says the following people are at higher risk of lingering symptoms:

  • Older adults

  • People with other medical problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease

  • People who vape or smoke

  • Those who are morbidly obese

However, even healthy young people can be long-haulers.

“A growing minority of long-haulers are young people,” he says. “I’ve had patients in their 20s and 30s who aren’t better nine months after testing positive for COVID.”

Treatment for long COVID

When Dr. Mathew sees a patient with lingering symptoms, he helps them get comprehensive care. Based on their symptoms, he may refer them to one or more of the following specialists:

  • Cardiologist

  • Neurologist

  • Psychiatrist

  • Physical therapist

“With the right team and treatment approach, symptoms can improve,” says Dr. Mathew. “But right now, we don’t know if long COVID symptoms will be a lifelong battle or will get better in time.” 

Many large hospitals and healthcare systems – including Piedmont Healthcare – now have special clinics to treat patients with lingering COVID-19 symptoms. Talk to your primary care provider if you suspect you have long COVID.

Should long COVID patients get vaccinated?

If you have lingering COVID-19 symptoms, should you get vaccinated?

“The answer is 100% yes,” says Dr. Mathew. “One of the latest studies showed that people with long COVID who got vaccinated had improved symptoms. These are early findings, but hopefully, more studies will reconfirm this.”

There are other major incentives to get vaccinated, he adds.

“The CDC has said after you’re fully vaccinated, you can safely travel in the U.S., you don’t have to get tested or isolate if you’re exposed to COVID and you can get together in small groups with others who are vaccinated without a mask.”

What to do after getting vaccinated

Just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean the pandemic is over – we haven’t yet achieved herd immunity. You still need to follow the CDC’s guidelines like wearing a mask in public, wearing a mask around people who aren’t vaccinated and are at high risk, and washing your hands regularly.

“The predominant strain in the United States is the U.K. strain, which is more contagious and deadly,” says Dr. Mathew. “The good news is the vaccine should work against it, but it won’t be 100% effective. It’s important that we mask up even as fully vaccinated people when we go into public spaces.”

And remember, you’re not fully protected until two weeks after your last shot, no matter which version you got. With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that’s two weeks after your single shot. With Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, it’s two weeks after your second dose.

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