Coronavirus cases are going down but COVID-19 is still taking a hidden toll that won’t be reflected by the number of deaths: It’s a syndrome called Long COVID, or Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), a chronic illness that affects 10 to 30% of COVID sufferers, young and old. Even after a mild case of coronavirus, these “long haulers” have symptoms that may never go away naturally. And while researchers are working furiously on a cure, patients may never get back to 100% of their former selves. “When we urge people to get vaccinated, it’s not just because COVID is a matter of life and death, although it is,” says Dr. Leo Nissola, an immunologist, immunotherapy scientist and CBS News Medical Contributor. “It’s also because there’s this middle ground—a debilitating illness that affects young and old.” At a press conference earlier this year, Dr. Anthony Fauci listed the symptoms of PASC. Read on to hear about each one—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You May Have Already Had COVID.
Dr. Fauci has said that PASC resembles chronic fatigue syndrome, aka CFS or myalgic encephalomyelitis. As you can guess from the name, the hallmark symptom is fatigue. This is not a general sleepiness, or the exhaustion you might feel after a long day on your feet (although you may feel exhausted). For many people, it’s more like your energy is being drowned by a suppressive force inside of you. One patient compared PASC to a Dementor in Harry Potter. “What is worrisome about this fatigue is that, even if it goes away for a day or two, many Long Haulers see it return after they exert themselves in any way,” says Dr. Nissola. “This ‘post-exertional malaise’ can come after they go for a walk—or, for some, if they try to do simple chores, like the dishes.”
Dr. Fauci warned of “myalgia,” aches and pains caused by the post-viral infection. These can appear transitory. One day you might have a pain in your chest that feels like a heart attack—but is actually an inflammation of your rib cage, perhaps—and the next horrible back pain; some patients have had consistent pain in places that were perfectly fine before they got COVID. “The virus disrupts a number of systems, from vascular to neurological,” says Dr. Nissola. “These can cause pain anywhere.”
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Fauci has seen people with high fevers due to COVID—some fevers can last for months. “Your body may think it still has a virus even though the virus may have left,” says Dr. Nissola. “Another theory is that there are still strands of COVID inside long haulers. In either case, your body is trying to regulate itself, and this can result in a fever or chills.”
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Because COVID can affect your neurological system, many long haulers have what Dr. Fauci calls “difficulty concentrating” and “brain fog.” This can resemble dementia for some; an inability to remember things you had no trouble remembering before COVID, like simple words, or an inability to remember why you were working on a task. Some patients find themselves staring into space, because it’s easier to do that than make decisions. “You may also get migraines,” said Dr. Nissola. “Or anxiety and depression. COVID-19 is nefarious in how thoroughly it can disrupt your brain.”
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Other long haulers have described having tinnitus, nausea, fainting spells—you name it. “The scope of the seriousness of this infection is extraordinary—from people who get a stuffy nose and a little sore throat and ache, and they get better to people who spend 14 days with a sustained fever and come out wiped out with a postviral dystonia, to people who have serious lung involvement that either puts them in the hospital or creates intubation needs and intensive care…to people who die,” said Dr. Fauci. “I mean, that range of severity is really in many respects unprecedented.”
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Don’t be shy. If you don’t feel quite right after experiencing COVID, or something that resembled COVID (even a mild case) contact a medical professional. While PASC was ill-defined at the beginning of the pandemic, it is becoming more well known. Although there is no codified treatment, your doctor will likely rule out other issues and then treat the symptoms, if not the syndrome itself. “We still have a lot to learn,” said Dr. Nissola. “To long haulers out there, I’d say stay hopeful—and to anyone who remains unvaccinated, I’d say don’t take your health for granted. Because COVID could take your health.” And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.