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Millions still struggling with long-term COVID symptoms

Long COVID can be hard to detect, with more than 200 symptoms and no universal clinical guidelines. It has medical experts scratching their heads.
Posted at 4:23 PM, Mar 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-08 16:23:36-05

It's been three years since the start of the pandemic, and while the country has largely moved on, others are still dealing with long-term COVID

"It's not fun," COVID-19 long-hauler Holly Olson said. "I will be honest, this is not the way to live. I’m doing my best." 

Long COVID can be hard to detect, with more than 200 symptoms and no universal clinical guidelines. It has medical experts scratching their heads.    

"They ran all these tests; they thought I had leukemia, they, I mean, just every possible disease out there," Olson continued.

Fatigued, trouble breathing, brain fog are just some of the common signs. But other symptoms can impact multiple organs and overlap with other diseases, making long COVID diagnosis difficult.

A long COVID patient receives treatment.

New research will look into understanding, treating long COVID

President Biden ordered a national research plan to look into long COVID.

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"It's not like a strep throat, where you can take a test and say, 'This is what the person has.' It's almost a diagnosis of exclusion," University Hospitals' Dr. David Rosenberg said. "And you'll have to have a keen clinician who is well versed in understanding differential diagnosis to try to figure it all out."

Ohio-based University Hospitals cited studies showing  20% to 30% of people infected with COVID "will continue to have health problems," even after the virus has cleared. For some patients, symptoms may even show up months later.  

"It would feel like my skin was burning like in my arms, or legs," COVID-19 long-hauler Lisa O'Brien said. "I also had GI issues. I lost my appetite, I couldn't eat things, shortness of breath, and by like month four, I was pretty much bed-bound." 

A doctor looking at scans of a patient's brain

Doctors are still hunting for the cause of long COVID brain fog

Studies show 30% of COVID patients report brain fog a few months after they're sick. It's 65% to 85% for long-haulers sick beyond that.

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Researchers are continually studying the effects of long COVID. A recent study found 36% of long-haulers experienced gastrointestinal problems like stomach pains, diarrhea or constipation.  

"In the elderly, we're seeing something called COVID encephalopathy, where there's an inflammation of the brain and that causes confusion, altered personalities — it can even mirror a stroke," Dr. Shad Marvast said.

He talks about the neurological impacts of the disease beyond brain fog. Studies also show increases in depression and anxiety.  

"A lot of times, we don't know what's happening. We get overwhelmed, and if you're already lonely or isolated or depressed, that can push you over the edge," Marvast continued.

Experts say COVID prevention is key, even if you already had COVID before.  

"The more times you get COVID, the worse those outcomes are, so that's another incentive to avoid it in the first place."