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Post-coronavirus symptoms show that not all recoveries look the same

Published Jul 16th, 2020 4:11PM EDT
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

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  • For some patients, the initial coronavirus symptoms are only the beginning. Surviving COVID-19 doesn’t guarantee a full recovery, and some people will still be experiencing symptoms months later.
  • An increasing number of reports detail these chronic COVID-19 cases where people of different ages experience debilitating symptoms caused by the original infections.
  • Doctors have started studying patients who have a hard time shaking post-COVID-19 symptoms, as some of these patients will need prolonged care and counseling.

The last few weeks proved that an incredible number of people simply do not care about whether they get infected with the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 has been surging to record numbers in many US states that have started reopening, and the worst may be yet to come. It’s not the increased testing that’s responsible for the massive spread. It’s just that more and more people ignore social distancing advice, and plenty of people avoid face masks like the plague, the one thing that can reduce the risk of transmission. Some are willing to risk getting infected, thinking they’re not at risk of developing complications or dying.

The sad reality is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be unpredictable. It’s older people who suffer from certain medical conditions at risk of experiencing a worse case of COVID-19 than healthy adults. But we’ve seen children and young adults die of coronavirus complications, including patients who did not have preexisting conditions. Even if you do survive the entire ordeal and your body fights the illness, you’re not necessarily going to get back to your previous life. Many people experience a variety of symptoms after getting rid of the infection, and nobody is ready to tell you anything about these side effects.

The disease is just too new for scientists to have all the definitive answers. Much progress has been made when it comes to recognizing unusual symptoms and offering better treatment protocols. Even patients who end up on ventilators are less likely to die than a few months ago — the death rate remains high nonetheless. But doctors won’t be able to predict whether you’re going to fully recover after contracting the virus, or whether you’re going to experience symptoms for several weeks or months to come. And those who can advise you on how to deal with the chronic symptoms that set in after you’re cured of COVID-19 won’t necessarily have answers or effective therapies to hasten the full recovery.

Dr. Jake Suett shared his coronavirus story with Vox. He works as an anesthesiology and intensive care physician at the National Health Service in Norfolk, England, and treated several COVID-19 patients until he started to feel symptoms. He was tired and had a sore throat, but he kept working. Five days later, he got a dry cough and a fever, ending up “gasping for air literally doing nothing, lying on my bed.” His chest X-rays and oxygen levels were normal, but he was still dealing with the symptom. He then developed a severe cardiac-type of chest pain. Suett still has symptoms 14 weeks later, including trouble concentrating or “brain fog.”

One doctor told him his symptoms might be related to anxiety. While psychological side-effects following the infection are expected in some patients, the doctor thinks that’s not the explanation for his condition.

The Vox report explains patients can experience several long-lasting symptoms, and some of them can be explained by the type of COVID-19 experience. Patients who spend a lot of time in the hospitals can experience muscle weakness — a CNN report tells the story of a man who woke up from a COVID-19 coma to find out he was paralyzed. Other symptoms can include anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Cognitive impairment has also been observed in some people, including older and younger patients who survived COVID-19.

Some people experience persistent pulmonary symptoms, including ongoing chest tightness and coughing. They might require additional treatment after surviving COVID-19 to address the lung damage done by the virus.

The Vox report also details the case of a 39-year-old ICU nurse in New Hampshire who was infected on March 15. Since then, she experienced relapses that prevent her from returning to work.

A COVID-19 survivor wrote their story in Stat, saying they had COVID-19 symptoms for more than 100 days. A psychiatry resident, Yochai Re ’em eventually found a support group that included other survivors who were dealing with persistent symptoms:

Some in the group had prolonged low-grade fevers that didn’t respond to standard fever-reducing medications. Some experienced terrifying neurological manifestations such as memory loss and changes in their ability to recall words in a primary or secondary language. Others were battling exercise-induced fatigue, with attempts at walking around the block sparking a relapse of symptoms. I’ve seen people citing symptoms in the central and peripheral nervous systems, the gastrointestinal tract, the skin, cardiovascular system, and more.

The doctor explained the ongoing symptoms aren’t as bad as other people’s, but they’re still something that need addressing more than three months after the initial onset of symptoms:

I am lucky not to have the debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, and fevers others have been experiencing. At this point I’m still experiencing intermittent gastrointestinal symptoms, persistently high liver enzymes, which a liver specialist is trying to figure out, and an odd and continuous discomfort in my leg, which may be paresthesia. I’m able to go to work and go about my life just fine. Many others can’t do that.

A survivor from Iowa detailed her post-COVID symptoms to 6News. Jakie Akers tested positive 70 days ago, but the side-effects are still here.

“[I have] debilitating migraines, it feels like lightning strikes it’s just terrible,” Akers said. Her doctors diagnosed her with viral meningitis secondary to the COVID-19 infection, as well as inflammation around her heart. The latter gave the young woman an elevated heart rate. She’s still on medication for her ongoing symptoms.

A study a few days ago, via The Boston Herald, showed that many recovered patients reported at least one lingering coronavirus symptom:

The patients were assessed by a medical team about 60 days after the onset of their first COVID-19 symptom and only 18 of them, or 12.6%, reported they were completely symptom-free.

More than half of the participants had three or more symptoms. A worsened quality of life was reported among 44% of patients, according to the study.

Most people reported fatigue (53%) and shortness of breath (43%). Chest pain and joint pain were also noted. The scientists explained the symptoms can be caused by the virus directly or from the ensuing complications. More than 72% of patients developed pneumonia, and 20% received ventilation. Blood clotting, a well-known COVID-19 complication, can make the prolonged symptoms worse, the doctors believe.

Several other physicians are conducting studies and setting up treatment protocols for patients experiencing these chronic COVID-19 symptoms. Vox has a few examples, but you should check with your local hospitals to see if you can get continued care.

A few months ago, we learned of a young patient whose lungs were completely destroyed by the virus. She was otherwise healthy to the point that she qualified for a double lung transplant, a first for COVID-19 patients. The surgery may have saved her life, but the recovery would be a lot longer than that.

The point of all these stories that keep popping up online is that the best thing to do to deal with COVID-19 is to avoid it. Keep your distance from others, wash your hands, and wear face masks. Better drugs and vaccines might soon be available, and COVID-19 could be treated faster and more effectively than it is now. The alternative is risking a chronic case of COVID-19 that could last for months.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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