Here’s What You Need To Know About Long COVID

It's estimated that 10-30 percent of people who get COVID will suffer from long COVID.

long covid

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As COVID cases continue to soar across Australia, the question is no longer “if” we will get the virus, rather, “when” and how bad it will be when we eventually test positive.

While the Omicron variant appears to be less severe than previous strains, the risk of contracting “long COVID” is still very real. So what exactly is long COVID and how do you know if you have it?

What Is Long COVID?

This isn’t an easy question to answer because we don’t fully understand what exactly constitutes long COVID, nor do we have a worldwide definition for what long COVID actually is. Naturally, this makes it tough.

The Australian Government defines long COVID as follows: “Long COVID is where symptoms of COVID-19 remain, or develop, long after the initial infection — usually after four weeks.”

It is estimated that 10-30 percent of people who get COVID will suffer from long COVID.

How Do I Know If I Have It?

Basically, any symptom of COVID that occurs after the initial infection and cannot be otherwise explained (e.g you have a cold or flu) can be deemed long COVID. These symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain/tightness
  • Memory loss and concentration issues
  • Lack of, or changes to, taste and smell
  • Joint and muscle pain

While these are the main symptoms, a study by the University College London (UCL) has also identified an additional 200 possible long COVID symptoms impacting 10 different organ systems. These symptoms include insomnia, hallucinations, gastrointestinal issues, menstrual changes and changes to skin conditions.

The severity of these symptoms varies from person to person.

Unfortunately, there’s no standard test to determine whether or not you have long COVID. Instead, your doctor will have to rule out all other possibilities before eventually putting it down to long COVID.

Just How Long Is Long COVID?

Like most other things regarding long COVID, we don’t actually know much about how long it lasts. A British study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) noted that nearly 10 percent of people reported at least one of their symptoms still lingering after twelve weeks.

It’s also worth noting that many have reported their symptoms coming and going, so even if you think you’re in the clear, you may not be.

“These symptoms, they come and go,” Kelly LaDue told NPR of her experience with long COVID in New York. “You think: ‘It’s gone.’ You think: ‘This is it. I’m getting better.’ And then it’ll just rear back up again.”

What Causes Long COVID?

The short and unfortunate answer is we don’t really know.

Scientists believe it could be a result of the initial infection sending your immune system into overdrive — causing it to attack your own tissue, instead of just the virus. Additionally, the virus getting into different cells can cause damage that could have longer-term impacts (like the loss of taste and smell) that take longer to heal.

Alternatively, it could be as simple as the virus lying dormant in the body for months, only to become reactivated down the track, as we’ve seen previously with other viruses like glandular fever. However, there’s not much evidence to back this theory with COVID yet.

As it currently stands, experts believe long COVID is not caused by one specific thing, rather, a combination.

“It’s still early days. But we believe that long COVID is not caused by one thing. That there are multiple diseases that are happening,” Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale University, who is studying long COVID, told NPR.

“We are finding elevated cytokines in long-COVID patients and we’re trying to decode what those cytokines mean. We’re also seeing some distinct autoantibody reactivity and are trying to find out what those antibodies are doing and whether they are causing harm.”