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The Long-Term Health Effects of COVID-19

Published on Jul. 13, 2021

How Your Health May Be Impacted If You Had COVID-19 – And What To Do Next.

Still feeling some fatigue, long after your bout with COVID-19? Or perhaps it’s trouble sleeping, headaches, shortness of breath, or other symptoms that could be signaling a much more serious medical condition.

If you had COVID-19 and you’re struggling to return to your pre-COVID state of health, you could have what’s commonly referred to as post-COVID syndrome, also known as long COVID.

For long-haulers living with these post-COVID symptoms, the lingering effects are real. What’s worse is the more serious medical complications resulting from COVID-19. Even if you only experienced mild symptoms with your illness, new research suggests that these long-term symptoms can still persist. 

Here’s what to look for if you’ve been sick with (or tested positive for) COVID-19.

General Lingering Symptoms

While most COVID-19 sufferers report a solid recovery within just weeks of the disease, others may continue to experience some not-so-pleasant symptoms. According to the CDC, the most common residual symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lingering cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Brain fog
  • Fever

Moreover, these symptoms may worsen following physical and even mental activities.

Breathing and/or Lung Complications

Breathing struggles are one of the most common ongoing COVID-19 symptoms. These complications can be as severe as permanent damage, typically caused by COVID-induced pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Shortness of breath is also quite common for those who experienced more mild COVID-19 infections.

Regardless of the severity of these breathing symptoms, research shows that COVID-19 sufferers are more likely to develop breathing difficulties and even require medications for their symptoms. The good news is recovery is possible – though it could take several months. Treatment such as respiratory therapy may be recommended by your family doctor to help promote healing. 

Heart Conditions

The lungs aren’t the only major organ impacted by COVID-19. While it’s still unclear whether preexisting heart complications led to long-term COVID-19 complications or the other way around, the number of people affected post-COVID heart symptoms raises concern. One study revealed that 60% of COVID-19 survivors showed signs of heart inflammation, leading to symptoms like rapid heartbeat, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. In addition, a British study showed that more than half of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were diagnosed with heart damage in the months following infection.

“We are seeing many patients with prolonged symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, and tachycardia,” says cardiologist Todd Adams, DO, FACC, of Munson Healthcare’s Traverse Heart & Vascular.        

While some cases are infections that can be treated with simple NSAIDs (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen), the more long-term symptoms aren’t quite as simple – though supportive cardiac care can help.

“Long hauler symptoms usually end up with normal cardiac and respiratory testing after seeking care,” Dr. Adams explains.   

Moreover, COVID-19 patients who suffer from high blood pressure may be at higher risk for brain complications, such as bleeding and stroke, according to another evolving study. Further, growing evidence shows that COVID-19 patients are at increased risk for stroke.

Type 2 Diabetes Complications

Medical professionals suspected early on in the pandemic that people with type 2 diabetes were at increased risk for severe – even fatal – COVID-19 complications. New research now corroborates this belief, pointing to inflammation as the likely cause.

Individuals with chronic medical conditions like type 2 diabetes or hypertension are at an increased risk of complications from a COVID-19 infection, including stroke, bleeding in the brain, and other neurologic issues,” explains J. William Rawlin DO, Family Medicine Residency Director at Munson Medical Center. “This reinforces the importance of preventing a COVID-19 infection by getting vaccinated with any of the approved vaccines that are available to you. In addition, it is imperative that you continue to follow up with your primary care provider to help ensure these medical conditions are optimally managed.”

Mental Health

Perhaps not surprisingly, mental health conditions are another common long-term COVID-19 symptom. A study following over 200,000 COVID-19 survivors showed that 34% of patients developed mental health or neurological conditions within six months post-infection.

Anxiety, mood disorders, addiction, and insomnia were among the most commonly reported symptoms. While it’s currently unclear whether these symptoms linger beyond the six-month period of study, researchers anticipate a need for further mental health and neurological care.

Other Potentially Hidden Health Complications

One final consideration for your health? Whether you had COVID-19 or not, you may have delayed important care, such as routine checkups, bloodwork, and screenings.

“Many people avoided necessary care during the pandemic. Cancer screenings and other tests are down, immunizations are down – that has adverse effects,” says Jim Whelan, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital. Dr. Whelan says that for those with chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease, the effects are especially damaging.

“We are seeing the effects of that delay in care for people with chronic illnesses and increased hospitalizations for non-COVID reasons,” he explains. “We believe there's a direct correlation between avoiding necessary care for the last 18 months and the rise in severity of illness we're seeing in the hospital."

Munson Healthcare hospitals track the number of sick patients across the system, and that number has risen significantly, Dr. Whelan says.

“The total daily census in the system hospitals has risen significantly from the pre-pandemic levels, meaning that there are more patients requiring hospitalization, and they're sicker when they get to the hospital. We believe that's largely from a reduction in their chronic disease management during the pandemic.

Reclaiming Your Health

Though the long-term effects may be damaging, you can take back control of your health. Reconnecting with your primary care physician and other specialists to get back on track is the key to early prevention and treatment.

“Contact your family doctor and get back on your routine health maintenance schedule,” Dr. Whelan advises. “It's safe to get care in both the ambulatory space and at the hospital, so now is the time to get caught up with your doctors. Use our service if you don’t have a primary care physician – this is a great resource for connecting to trusted care.”

While connecting with your doctors is a must, there are some important measures you can begin right at home.

“Self-care is the first step to a healthier life. As we return to normal activities, getting back in your exercise routine and watching your diet are all part of good health maintenance. They also serve as ways to help cope with the ongoing stress,” Whelan says. “Establishing a strong relationship with your family doctor is the best path to safe, reliable, and trusted guidance you need in any of these areas.”

In the meantime, Dr. Whelan remains optimistic for COVID long-haulers.

“As we expand our knowledge and continue to work with experts both within the state and across the country to better understand the long-term effects of COVID, we'll have the vast majority of people return to their pre-infection status,” he says.

Are you experiencing any of these complications?

Schedule an appointment with Primary Care Physician and/or ongoing specialists today. Munson Healthcare doctors, nurses, and medical specialists are here for you across 11,000 square miles of northern Michigan, and we’re ready to help you feel your best for whatever comes next.

If you don’t have a medical home, call Munson Healthcare's Ask-A-Nurse line at 231-935-0951 or use our online Find-A-Doctor tool. Our team will help you find a physician nearby.

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Long COVID Support

Do you have long COVID? Click here to learn about resources and support groups.

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