What Are We Doing For People With Long COVID?

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By now you’ve likely heard the phrase ‘long COVID’ thrown around in the media and by medical experts. The World Health Organisation officially recognised the post-COVID condition in October 2021, as having symptoms three months after having COVID symptoms that can’t be explained by an alternative diagnosis.

Sydney’s St Vincent’s is the first NSW hospital to have a dedicated long COVID clinic to manage patients experiencing these symptoms, which has been open since March 2022. So what have they learned about treating long COVID?

How Do You Know If You Have Long COVID?

Dr Anthony Byrne, a thoracic physician at St Vincent’s clinic said “the common symptoms of people that we see in the clinic would be fatigue, lethargy… breathlessness is up there. And definitely brain fog.

People have difficulty with their thought processes and processing complex tasks.”

He encouraged people who might be experiencing these symptoms to seek help before the allotted twelve weeks post-infection.

“But you don’t have to wait for 12 weeks, I think that would be the key point.”

Dr Byrne pointed out that studies indicate certain risk factors for long COVID, like how sick you are with your initial infection. “If you’ve got more than five acute symptoms with your acute COVID, then you’re more likely to go on to develop long COVID.”

Who’s More Likely To Get Long COVID?

Just how many people have been affected or are still living with long COVID in Australia is still yet to be determined by experts. Some estimate 400,000 Australians are experiencing long COVID — 5% of the 8 million estimated COVID cases since 2020. 

At the moment, long COVID seems to be more likely affecting female patients in their 40s and 50s, who were often pretty active before getting COVID. This might indicate a hormonal factor that affects how long COVID affects people.

“Maybe there’s some oestrogen, testosterone, hormonal thing here that we’re missing. 

There’s work looking at the microbiome. The microbiome is all these bugs that are on your skin and inside your gut and inside your lungs. And it looks like there’s probably a different signature of your microbiome in people with long COVID.”

How Long COVID Can Stir Up Existing Conditions

Dr Byrne has also seen how COVID symptoms can even flare up existing health conditions.

“I just saw a patient actually, just now. Young nurse, usually fit and well [and] vaccinated [and] had COVID a couple of months ago. The patient was experiencing symptoms months after her initial infection, and also had childhood asthma, which hadn’t bothered her until this point.

It’s actually likely that COVID, which is a really bad nasty respiratory virus, has stirred up her lungs and stirred up this asthma, which prior to COVID was just not doing too much.”

Since there’s no exclusive treatment for long COVID itself, Dr Byrne treated her as he would normally treat an asthma patient.

What’s The Current Treatment For Long COVID? 

Some patients present with symptoms like inflammation rather than respiratory symptoms. Doctors treat this symptom with anti-inflammatory medications, like steroids.

“The other thing that’s really useful is giving prescribed exercise,” said Dr Byrne. “So we’ve got physiotherapists and we’ve also got a really experienced psychologist.”

UNSW’s Kirby Institute has uncovered a specific ‘immune profile’ for those with long COVID. According to the researchers, understanding the immune profile for long COVID will hopefully help us treat and manage it.

Until then, people are calling for more government support for those suffering from long COVID, especially those who aren’t able to work and partake in their usual routine.