What is long COVID, and how long does it take to recover?

Beth Sissons

Long COVID is a condition wherein people continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms for longer than usual after initially contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Other terms for long COVID include post-COVID, post-acute COVID, long-tail COVID, and long-haul COVID. People with long COVID may refer to themselves as long haulers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) explain that some people may experience long-term effects of COVID-19, whether they required hospitalization or not. These long-term effects may include fatigue, respiratory symptoms, and neurological symptoms.

This article will look at symptoms, possible causes, diagnosis, and options for managing and recovering from long COVID.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

Long COVID refers to when people continue to experience symptoms of COVID-19 and do not fully recover for several weeks or months after the start of their symptoms.

Some research suggests that people with mild cases of COVID-19 usually recover within 1–2 weeks of contracting the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection. For severe cases of COVID-19, recovery can take 6 weeks or longer.

Currently, researchers may define post-acute COVID-19 as symptoms extending beyond 3 weeks since onset and chronic COVID-19 as symptoms extending beyond 12 weeks since onset.

Other researchers refer to long COVID as COVID-19 symptoms that last for longer than 2 months.

A 2020 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that it may take weeks for COVID-19 symptoms to resolve and for people to return to their usual state of health. This is also true for young adults with no chronic medical conditions.

In contrast, over 90% of people discharged from the hospital with influenza usually recover within 2 weeks.

Mounting evidence suggests that many people may continue to experience symptoms related to COVID-19 long after their initial infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Although it is still unclear how many people have experienced long COVID, data from the COVID Symptom Study app suggest that 1 in 10 people with the illness experience symptoms for 3 weeks or longer.

Data from the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics found similar results, with roughly 1 in 10 respondents who tested positive for COVID-19 exhibiting symptoms lasting for a period of 12 weeks or longer.

This means that across the world, there may be more than 5 million cases of long COVID.

One 2021 study found that more than three-quarters of COVID-19 patients in a hospital in Wuhan, China, still had at least one symptom 6 months after their discharge from the hospital.

This is consistent with a 2020 study from Italy that found that 87.4% of COVID-19 patients report experiencing at least one symptom 2 months after their discharge from the hospital.

A 2020 Swiss study also notes that as many as 1 in 3 people with milder cases COVID-19 were still experiencing symptoms after 6 weeks.

Using a statistical model, a preprint 2020 study found that long COVID is more likely to occur in older adults, people with a higher body mass index (BMI), and females.

It also notes that individuals who experience more than five symptoms during the first week of illness are more likely to develop long COVID.

Some evidence also suggests that many people with long COVID are healthcare workers.

The CDC note a variety of symptoms for COVID-19. They also note that the symptoms that people most commonly report in long COVID are:

fatigueshortness of breathcoughjoint painchest pain

People may also experience:

brain fog, wherein they find it more difficult to think clearly and focusdepressionmuscle painheadachefever, which may come and goheart palpitations, or a feeling of the heart pounding

People may also develop long-term complications that affect the organs. These complications are less common but may include:

inflammation of the heart muscleabnormal lung functionsevere kidney injurya rashhair lossproblems with smell and tastesleep issuesmemory and concentration difficultiesanxietymood changes

Researchers are not certain what causes prolonged recovery times from COVID-19, but some possible causes of long COVID may include:

a reduced or lack of response from the immune systemrelapse or reinfection of the virusinflammation or a reaction from the immune systema change in physical functions due to bed rest or inactivitypost-traumatic stress

COVID-19 may cause long lasting changes to the immune system, which can affect the organs. These changes, particularly in the lungs, may last longer than the time it takes for the body to remove the virus.

If a person is experiencing long COVID, they may have received a COVID-19 diagnosis if they had access to a coronavirus test.

To diagnose long COVID, a doctor may take a full medical history and assess all COVID-19 symptoms, from the beginning of the infection to the current symptoms. The doctor may check:

blood pressuretemperatureheart rate and rhythmlung and breathing function

Although there is no specific test to diagnose long COVID, doctors may run tests to rule out any other possible causes of the symptoms. Testing may vary depending on which symptoms a person has but may involve blood tests to check:

full blood countelectrolyteskidney functionliver functiontroponin, to test for heart muscle damageinflammation levelsmuscle damageD-dimer, to check that no blood clots are presentheart healthiron levels

Other tests may include:

a chest X-raya urine testan electrocardiogram, to check for heart problems

Home remedies for managing long COVID will likely be similar to home treatments for COVID-19. Options include:

taking over-the-counter pain relief, such as acetaminophen, to relieve painful symptoms or feverresting and relaxingsetting achievable targets to reachgradually increasing exercise levels, as appropriate

Taking care of general health is also important. These includes:

following a healthy dietgetting quality sleeplimiting alcohol intakelimiting caffeine intakenot smoking

People may also find it helpful to connect with a support network, particularly if long COVID is affecting their mental health, financial security, or social well-being.

There is currently no clear timeline for recovery from long COVID. Research reports that people may experience symptoms 60–90 days after the initial infection, and some people may experience symptoms for longer than this.

Other viruses aside from SARS-CoV-2 can also cause long lasting symptoms. According to the British Heart Foundation, the symptom duration of other viruses suggests that long COVID symptoms may resolve within 3 months. People may continue to feel tired for up to 6 months.

However, these are rough estimates, and recovery times may be different for each individual.

Due to how novel the condition of long COVID is, researchers and healthcare professionals are still working to understand the causes, treatment options, and potential recovery times.

People experiencing long COVID can call a doctor for advice.

However, a person needs medical help if they experience any of the following:

breathlessness that worsensunexplained chest paina new state of confusionweaknesschanges in vision, hearing, or speech

If anyone needs immediate medical attention, someone can call 911 and inform them that they have symptoms that may relate to COVID-19.

As more people discuss their experience of long COVID, some countries are beginning to provide more formal support. In the U.K., for example, a COVID Recovery resource from the National Health Service (NHS) is now available.

However, in the United States, informal support groups — such as Body Politic — are still the main source of help for people experiencing long COVID symptoms.

Some people with COVID-19 symptoms may recover in a few weeks. However, recovery may take much longer for others.

Long COVID is the term for COVID-19 symptoms that continue for weeks or months after the initial infection.

People can discuss a treatment plan with a doctor. Taking steps to look after their health and well-being — such as by following a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, and doing gentle exercise — may all help a person manage long COVID.

Medical treatment may be necessary to treat any secondary infections or complications.

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About the Author: Beth Sissons

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