Doctors find symptoms can linger long after COVID-19 passes

Medical Watch

COVID-19 is feared because it causes acute sickness. And now doctors are learning, even when the infection is gone, symptoms last.

Kerri Noeth wasn’t even supposed to be one of the patients who got terribly ill with COVID-19. She was 44, was training for a half marathon and had no health issues. In mid-March, she noticed some mild symptoms that quickly took a turn.

“My chest pain was so significant that I knew something was wrong. But in my head, I thought maybe it’s anxiety,” she said. “I’ve been hearing a lot about COVID-19 in the news but it couldn’t possibly be that. And then by Day 3 I had a fever as well as GI symptoms that go along with COVID.”

Noeth got the positive diagnosis and healed at home.

“For many people, you’ll hear it compared to the flu,” she said. “And so many people are even asymptomatic. But when it reaches the point where you can’t breathe, it’s pretty scary. And unlike another illness where the sensations are familiar, most of my experience with COVID were like nothing I had ever felt before.”

After she got the all clear, Noeth was not clear of lingering symptoms — heart palpitations, low blood pressure, numbness, hot flashes over her skin and shortness of breath. The avid runner now barely has the energy to walk the dog. She said it’s both frustrating and confusing.

“Will the fatigue continue for another two weeks or will it last forever? Will the shortness of breath be a permanent thing or will it eventually resolve?” she said.

Northwestern Medicine family physician Dr. Ashley Stoecker said she is seeing more and more patients with lingering issues following their SARS-CoV-2 infection. Worldwide, sufferers turned to Facebook. The “Long Haul COVID Fighters” page has about 2,500 members.

“In the beginning we were told if you have mild symptoms it’s not going to be that bad. It’s only going to be a couple of weeks,” Stoecker said. “If you have severe symptoms and are in the hospital and require intubation, it may be longer. But what we’re finding is there’s definitely this group that’s in between that are having symptoms for weeks, even months that seem to be related to COVID. … A good portion of these individuals are continually having issues with cough and shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations, headaches, fatigue is a big one. Numbness, tingling, headaches, it’s really kind of all over the place.”

And like the virus itself, these persistent ailments are baffling to doctors.

“There’s this sort of infection and then there tends to be this and we don’t really understand if it is the infection that is continuing to cause problems or this post infection response and this post inflammatory response,” Stoecker said.  

Inflammation is a common threat with COVID-19. It causes patients to plummet and, in some cases, end up on a ventilator. But even for those who never end up in the ICU, that inflammation plagues their lives.

“Some people are having this get better over the course of months. But some people haven`t seen that yet,” Stoecker said.  

“Ten weeks is a long time to be sick,” Noeth said. “But just have to keep taking it day by day and try to get stronger and find new solutions to keep going.”

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