Most COVID Long-Haulers Suffer Fallout for More Than a Year

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Most COVID-19 long-haulers continue to have brain fog, fatigue and compromised quality of life more than a year after the initial infection, results from the most extensive follow up to date of a group of long COVID patients show.

Most patients continue to experience debilitating neurologic symptoms an average of 15 months from symptom onset, Igor Koralnik, who oversees the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, said during a press briefing.

Surprisingly, in some cases, new symptoms appear that didn’t exist before, including variation of heart rate and blood pressure, and gastrointestinal symptoms, indicating there may be a late appearance in dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system in those patients, Koralnik said.

The study was published online May 24 in Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.

Evolving Symptoms

The investigators evaluated the evolution of neurologic symptoms in 52 adults who had mild COVID-19 symptoms and were not admitted to the hospital.

Their mean age was 43 years, 73% were women and 77% had received a COVID-19 vaccine. These patients have now been followed for between 11 and 18 months since their initial infection.

Overall, between first and follow-up evaluations, there was no significant change in the frequency of most neurologic symptoms, including brain fog (81% vs 71%), numbness/tingling (69% vs 65%), headache (67% vs 54%), dizziness (50% vs 54%), blurred vision (34% vs 44%), tinnitus (33% vs 42%), and fatigue (87% vs 81%).

The only neurologic symptoms that decreased over time were loss of taste (63% vs 27%) and smell (58% vs 21%).

Conversely, heart rate and blood pressure variation (35% vs 56%) and gastrointestinal symptoms (27% vs. 48%; P = .04) increased at follow-up evaluations.

Patients reported subjective improvements in their recovery, cognitive function and fatigue, but quality of life measures remained lower than the average population of the United States.

There was a neutral effect of COVID vaccination on long COVID symptoms — it didn’t cure long COVID or make long COVID worse, which is a reason given by some long-haulers for not getting vaccinated, Koralnik told the briefing.

Therefore, we continue to encourage our patients to get vaccinated and boosted according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation, he said.

Escape From the ‘Pit of Despair’

To date, the Northwestern Medicine Neuro COVID-19 Clinic has treated nearly 1400 COVID long-haulers from across the United States.

Emily Caffee, a physical therapist from Wheaton, Illinois, is one of them.

Speaking at the briefing, the 36-year-old described her saga and roller coaster of recovering from long COVID in three acts: her initial infection, followed by a descent into a pit of physical and emotional despair, followed by her eventual escape from that pit more than two years later.

Following a fairly mild case of COVID, Caffee said worsening neurologic symptoms forced her to take medical leave from her very physical and cognitively demanding job. 

Caffee said she experienced crushing fatigue and brain fog, as well as rapid heart rate and blood pressure changes going from sitting to standing position.

She went from being a competitive athlete to someone who could barely get off the couch or empty the dishwasher.

With the ongoing help of her medical team, she slowly returned to daily activities and eventually to work on a limited basis.

Today, Caffee says she’s 90% to 95% better but still she has some lingering symptoms and does not yet feel like her pre-COVID self.

It’s been a very slow climb out of the pit, Caffee said.

This study has no specific funding. The authors disclosed no relevant conflicts of interest.

Ann Clin Transl Neurol. Published online May 24, 2022. Source.

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