In hospital wings and doctor’s offices, they’re known as “long-haulers”– the COVID-19 patients who experience symptoms long after “recovering” with a negative test.
Unlike most common patients who get back on their feet in one to two weeks, or even patients with severe symptoms who take four weeks to recover, long-haulers cope with painful recovery problems for months.
Many long-haulers experience symptoms and health complications that their doctors struggle to understand and treat. Their experiences paint an increasingly clear picture of the complicated nature of COVID-19 recovery.
Strain on the Heart
Research recently completed in Germany suggests that COVID-19 infections, even those mild enough to avoid hospitalization, cause long-term heart damage.
Cardiac MRIs of 100 people who had recovered from coronavirus were compared to MRIs from 100 similar people who were never infected by COVID-19. Two-thirds of the coronavirus patients had recovered at home, but two months later they were more likely to experience indications of cardiac complications than those in the control group.
Overall, 78% of COVID-19 patients showed structural changes in their hearts, while 76% had evidence of a biomarker signaling cardiac injury usually seen after a heart attack. A full 60% of patients in the study had signs of inflammation in the heart. Perhaps the most concerning point of this study is the fact that most patients were relatively young and healthy, with no pre-existing health problems.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t recognize hair loss as an official symptom of the coronavirus, but more than one-fourth of poll respondents have reported hair loss during COVID-19 recovery.
Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist in New York City, has seen this first hand. As soon as her office reopened after quarantine, an influx of patients sought treatment for hair loss.
“Patients have literally come in with bags of hair looking like a full head of hair was in the bag,” she explained. “They all have similar stories. That they were extremely sick with high fevers and have never been that sick in their entire lives.”
Limited Lung Capacity
The coronavirus is believed to cause Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), which causes fluid to build in tiny air sacs of the lungs. This limits the ability to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.
As a result, many people experience limited lung capacity even after recovering from COVID-19. The more lung tissue damage that occurs, the more scarring that forms, leading to limited elasticity of the lungs and decreased function for a long period of time.
Many long-haulers also face overwhelming fatigue as they attempt to return to their daily routine. It’s not simply physical fatigue, either. The collective physical, emotional, and cognitive work required to recover from a serious illness takes its toll on the body, especially in the form of exhaustion.
“For example, patients who are recently discharged from a serious COVID-related illness may have trouble walking up and down stairs because their muscles are not back to full strength,” said Aluko Hope, co-director of Montefiore Health System’s COVID Recovery Engagement Clinic in the Bronx, New York.. “This means a simple task like answering a phone call or picking up the mail during the day could push this patient to their physical limits.”