Jessica Sowards, MS LAc
Courtney Dunlop contracted COVID-19 back in March 2020, when little was known about the novel coronavirus. It started with an uncontrollable cough (so violent at times that it made her vomit) and progressed into what we now recognize as classic COVID-19 symptoms: headaches, rapid heart rate, fatigue, loss of smell and taste, muscle aches and more. “I had planned to wait it out, but when I started having chest pains I went to the hospital — that’s the symptom you don’t want to ignore,” says the 41-year-old, who lives in Springfield, Missouri. The hospital visit took place in late May 2020. Yes, two months after contracting the virus, Dunlop was still sick with COVID-19 symptoms.
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The majority of people who contract COVID-19 recover in about two weeks or less, but for some, the symptoms linger — and they can be downright debilitating. This phenomenon is known as long COVID-19, long-haul COVID-19 or post-COVID-19 syndrome.
“By late summer 2020, I was clearly a long-hauler,” says Dunlop, who continued to experience fatigue and a rapid heart rate, as well as a new symptom: hair loss. Over time, many of the symptoms subsided, but Dunlop is still easily fatigued with a lingering cough.
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What are Lingering COVID-19 and Long-Haul COVID?
Though it’s normal for it to take some time to kick COVID-19 completely, there is a difference between suffering through the lingering symptoms and being a true long hauler. Research is still emerging in this area, but the determining factors seem to be duration and severity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that if you’re still experiencing COVID symptoms — or developing new ones — after four weeks you may have long-haul COVID-19.
White House Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, MD, calls this condition post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, (aka PASC). According to research, PASC can last as long as nine months after the initial infection— in some case, even longer. “Long haulers can present with many different symptoms including fatigue, headaches, dizziness, brain fog, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), achiness and shortness of breath, while lingering symptoms tend to be milder fatigue, loss of smell and aches and pains,” says Dr. Frank Lipman, MD, Chief Medical Officer at THE WELL.
The “brain fog” Lipman notes (a fuzzy, jet-lagged feeling) is particularly common among those with long-haul COVID. According to a study published in The Lancet, over 88 percent of the 3,762 COVID-19 long-haulers surveyed reported memory problems and cognitive dysfunction.
Who Is Most At Risk of Contracting Long-Haul COVID-19?
Research shows women were more likely to experience extended COVID-19 symptoms, says Jessica Sowards, MS, L.Ac., Director of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture at THE WELL. Why? There’s no definite answer yet. “There are a lot of questions around long-haul COVID,” says Sowards. “It could be hormonal, but we also know that many women tend to burn the candle at both ends.” (In other words, women might not be getting the rest and care they need to recoup from initial symptoms.) Long-haul COVID-19 is also more likely in those with underlying conditions, such as metabolic disease, adds Dr. Lipman.
How Do You Treat Long-Haul COVID?
“In both lingering and long-haul COVID, the body has not cleared the infection,” says Sowards. “If somebody is having symptoms after two weeks of being sick, they need those symptoms addressed.”
One of the best ways to address ongoing symptoms is by seeking the care of a medical practitioner versed in holistic treatment. “This particular pathogen is very tricky; it hides,” says Sowards. “It rears its ugly head when there’s a dip in the immune system, which can be from anything — work, stress, poor eating habits, a cold.”
Jordan Crofton, FNP, Director of Patient Care at The WELL agrees: “Lingering and long-haul symptoms are both an indication that there’s some kind of imbalance or underlying inflammation in the body,” says Crofton.
“Lingering and long-haul symptoms are both an indication that there’s some kind of imbalance or underlying inflammation in the body.”
Both severe COVID-19 and long-haul COVID produce what experts called a cytokine storm in the body. Cytokines are proteins that play a role in regulating immune health and inflammatory response, and while they sound helpful, a too-much-too-soon release of these proteins causes the immune system to overreact and destroy tissue — even healthy tissue.
“If someone comes to me with long-haul COVID symptoms, we’re going to do a pretty deep dive,” Crofton says. “That includes lab work on everything from inflammatory markers to micronutrients in order to see if there’s any imbalance that’s not allowing your immune system to function to its full potential.”
Combining treatments from both Chinese Medicine and Functional Medicine may reduce inflammation and support your immune system as it works to clear COVID-19. Experts may recommend changes to diet or sleeping habits, as well as prescribing herbal medicines. Additionally, there’s a strong emphasis on gut health in combating long-haul COVID-19 symptoms. “The gut is integral in every system, but we know that over 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut,” says Crofton.
Certain supplements can also be successful in mitigating COVID symptoms. Dr. Lipman uses quercetin (a plant flavonoid with anti-inflammatory benefits found in THE WELL Superpowder), N-Acetylcysteine (NAC, an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory) and vitamin D, as well as specialized pro-resolving mediators (aka SPMs) for COVID long haulers. “We’ve seen a lot of success with that treatment due to its anti-inflammatory and immune modulation benefits,” says Crofton.
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The takeaway: If you’re struggling with COVID symptoms for more than a few weeks, reach out to a medical professional for advice on uncovering imbalances, quelling underlying inflammation and bolstering your immune system so you can shorten the haul as much as possible.