What is a COVID-19 long hauler?

covid-19 long-hauler coronavirus
Photo via NIH Image Gallery/Flickr (Public Domain)

While data shows that 80% of people who contract the coronavirus fully recover within two weeks, there’s a subset of patients who report lingering symptoms of the virus for up to three months. Doctors have named this kind of patient a COVID-19 long-hauler or a COVID-19 long-termer. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, some of these patients didn’t even have severe cases of COVID-19; they just never stopped experiencing symptoms.  

Dr. Christopher Babiuch, specializing in family medicine, shared with the Cleveland Clinic everything he and his colleagues know about long-haulers so far. 

According to Babiuch, COVID-19 long-haulers are a variety of ages and a mixture of high-risk people and people were otherwise healthy before they became infected. The Atlantic reported that the majority of long-haulers surveyed by Dr. David Putrino, a neuroscientist and a rehabilitation specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital, were women. Their average age was 44. 

At the moment, doctors are still unsure what causes long-lasting symptoms and don’t know if long-haulers are contagious. 

“Typically after having an active infection like COVID-19, the contagiousness goes away after a few weeks and you start to recover,” Babiuch said. “We less commonly see persistent fevers in this group, which hints that they probably aren’t infectious months later, but it can vary.” 

What symptoms do a COVID-19 long-hauler experience?

Symptom-wise, Babiuch said long-haulers typically experience the same symptoms people experience during the “acute phase” of the illness but not as severe. That includes coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and diarrhea. Long-haulers are more prone to developing depression and anxiety than regular COVID-19 patients. 

In an interview with NPR, two long-haulers described experiencing “shortness of breath, chest pains, vomiting, and neurological symptoms that range from headaches and fatigue to hallucinations and jumbled words.” 

However, fatigue is the primary symptom long-haulers experience. 

“Oftentimes this group feels very run down and tired,” Babiuch said. “They can’t exert themselves or exercise and simple tasks (like walking to the mailbox) will often leave them feeling exhausted. Chronic fatigue like we’re seeing in this group can be incredibly debilitating and frustrating.” 

Putrino said 90% of the long-haulers he works with experience “post-exertional malaise,” where “mild bouts of physical or mental exertion can trigger a severe physiological crash.” Many appear to have developed chronic fatigue syndrome.

“We’re talking about walking up a flight of stairs and being out of commission for two days,” Putrino said.

Putrino said he and his colleagues treat COVID-19 patients who appear to have developed chronic fatigue syndrome by slowly reconditioning their nervous systems through exercises that gradually get their bodies used to a higher heart rate.

Babiuch recommends that if someone believes they are experiencing long-lasting symptoms of COVID-19, they should drink plenty of fluids, rest, focus on getting enough sleep, eat well, and contact your doctor to determine the best course of treatment. 

Sources: Cleveland Clinic, Atlantic, NPR

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