More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, researchers have found that hundreds of thousands of Americans are seeking medical attention for post-COVID heath problems.
A new study from the nonprofit organization FAIR Health — the largest study to date on the topic — used the health insurance records of nearly two million people to determine that 23% of those people needed medical treatment for long-haul COVID conditions, even though they had never before been diagnosed with a coronavirus infection.
There is still much to learn about long-haul COVID conditions, which encompass a variety of side effects experienced by people who previously had the virus. The symptoms are wide-ranging and affect people of all ages. Debilitating fatigue is the most common symptom of long-haul COVID, but people also experienced pain in nerves and muscles, breathing difficulties, high cholesterol, malaise, and high blood pressure. Some also reported intestinal symptoms, migraines, skin problems, heart abnormalities, sleep disorders, and anxiety and depression.
The report “drives home the point that long Covid can affect nearly every organ system,” Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, told The New York Times. “Some of these manifestations are chronic conditions that will last a lifetime and will forever scar some individuals and families.”
Anyone can be affected by post-COVID symptoms, though, regardless of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms can last weeks or months after a person is infected with the virus, or they can appear weeks or months later. It also doesn't matter how severely a person was impacted by coronavirus. While nearly half of patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 experienced post-infection medical issues, so did 27% of people with mild or moderate cases and 19% of people who were asymptomatic, The Times reported.
Researchers found that fact surprising, but also important to emphasize. “There are some people who may not have even known they had COVID,” Robin Gelburd, president of FAIR Health told The Times. “But if they continue to present with some of these conditions that are unusual for their health history, it may be worth some further investigation by the medical professional that they’re working with.”
Finding medical care has been difficult for sufferers of long COVID, because it's still a new virus. That’s been the case for Molly Burch, who was 16 years old when she was infected with COVID-19 in March 2020. After she healed from the initial infection, Molly’s mom, Ann Wallace, told Healthline that Molly developed new symptoms months later.
“I thought she was better, but in August, her symptoms came back with new shortness of breath,” said Wallace. “I remember because it was her birthday; she was having trouble breathing, and it was incredibly alarming.” Still, moderate daily activities like walking up stairs leave Molly out of breath and she suffers from severe fatigue after the school day. And finding help hasn’t been easy. “It’s not that people haven’t offered help. It’s that in the beginning, there was really no help to offer,” Wallace said. “And it’s still maddening, the difficulty getting care for people with long COVID.”
Medical professionals suggest talking to your healthcare provider about managing and treating long COVID symptoms, if you think you might have a post-infection condition. The CDC also notes that post-COVID care clinics are opening up at medical centers across the United States and COVID patients experiencing long-term after effects might consider visiting a clinic for further care.
And of course, whether you’ve had COVID or not, the most important thing we can all do right now is get a vaccine.