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Coping tips for COVID-19 'long-haulers'

People who recover from COVID-19 typically feel like their old selves in two to six weeks. But for some, the road to recovery may be much longer than that. In fact, many people continue to struggle with symptoms weeks or even months after they might have expected to fully recover.

Researchers are calling this condition long COVID or post-COVID syndrome. But many of those who find themselves in this situation simply refer to themselves as COVID long-haulers.

A frustrating medical mystery

COVID long-haulers have reported a wide range of lingering symptoms. Many say the symptoms come and go at random and can be so overwhelming that tasks of daily living are impossible to perform.

Some of the symptoms long-haulers have described include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Difficulty concentrating (sometimes called brain fog).
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Inability to exercise due to breathing problems or fatigue.
  • Upset stomach.
  • Low fever.
  • Muscle and joint pain.
  • Headaches.
  • Dizziness.

What's going on here?

COVID-19 is still a new disease. So it's not yet clear why some people recover relatively quickly and others don't, the National Institutes of Health reports.

Some scientists speculate that long-haulers could have a weak or abnormal immune reaction to the virus. The virus may have worsened underlying medical conditions—or caused new ones. Or some people could be experiencing reinfection.

It's worth noting that long-term complications have occurred in some people infected with other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS.

In short, researchers still need to learn more about COVID-19 long-haulers. And the quest for answers will take time. So what can you do in the meantime?

Life as a long-hauler

If you think you might be a COVID-19 long-hauler, the first thing to do is to tell your doctor. There isn't a specific treatment yet. But support, rest and symptom relief may help you feel better as you slowly recover.

While there's no easy fix in sight, here are some other things you can do that may help:

Stay on top of your symptoms. Let your doctor know if they get worse.

Manage underlying conditions. An underlying condition such as diabetes or heart disease may potentially contribute to a delayed COVID-19 recovery. Work with your doctor on a treatment plan.

Be good to your body. Try to get plenty of sleep, rest and healthy foods.

Ease back into activity. If you feel like exercising, start slowly, and do what you can for now. Don't push yourself to return to your normal routine.

Keep your spirits up. If you can, take time for hobbies or activities that bring you joy. Seek help from your doctor, a counselor or your support network if you feel sad, anxious or hopeless.

Set doable goals. Listen to your body, and go at your own pace. Slow progress is still progress.

Learn from those who've been there. Search out support groups for COVID-19 long-haulers online. You can share information and encouragement. Some groups of long-haulers have even started conducting their own surveys to help move research along. Joining in may help you feel better about the journey you're on.

Look into community resources. Are you dealing with job loss or money woes along with your health challenges? Food pantries, unemployment offices, social workers and faith leaders are just some of the resources that may be able to help.

Reach out to family and friends. A prolonged illness can lead to isolation. Connecting with your social network can help you feel less alone. And they may be able to help with chores or errands, if you ask.

For more tips on living with or caring for someone with COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus health topic center.

Reviewed 10/20/2020

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