‘Long haulers:’ UW Health expert shares latest on post-acute COVID-19 syndrome

According to Dr. Pop-Vicas, there are two main categories of “long haulers.”
Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 5:32 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - UW Health expert Dr. Aurora Pop-Vicas is offering the latest information on COVID-19 ‘long haulers’—people who have recovered from the virus, but have chronic symptoms that continue for months.

Health experts are still learning about the phenomenon, which is scientifically known as “post-acute COVID-19 syndrome.” Dr. Pop-Vicas, an infectious disease specialist at UW Health, shared what experts know so far:

Who is most likely to get post-acute COVID-19 syndrome?

According to Dr. Pop-Vicas, there are two main categories of “long haulers.” The first category includes patients who have been hospitalized for a significant amount of time in the ICU. These patients have “greatly impaired function” after being on prolonged life support, and could also be recovering from severe complications caused by COVID-19. These complications can include strokes, blood clots, cardiovascular disease, or other related organ damage.

The second category includes patients who had a mild case of COVID-19, not requiring hospitalization or medical treatment, and have developed new or reoccurring symptoms that persist for months after infection. Many of these patients are young and previously healthy individuals, according to Dr. Pop-Vicas.

What are the most common symptoms of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome?

Experts have noted that fatigue or generalized muscle weakness is the most common post-COVID-19 symptom reported in their studies. Shortness of breath, palpitations, sleeping difficulties, anxiety, depression, joint pain, chest pain, altered smell or taste, headaches, brain fog are also common.

“Not surprisingly, these symptoms significantly impair quality of life and can make normal activities very challenging,” Dr. Pop-Vicas said in a release.

How common is post-acute COVID-19 syndrome?

According to studies on patients who were hospitalized for COVID-19, 75 percent reported at least one symptom persisting six months after infection.

Additionally, studies revealed one out of every five patients showed evidence of decreased lung function six months later, even if they did not need oxygen during their hospitalization,.

Though, the studies also showed post-acute COVID-19 syndrome is less common in with mild cases of COVID-19 and did not require hospitalization. According to reports from large population-based studies, an estimated 10-20 percent of these patients develop “long-haul COVID.”

Why does post-acute COVID-19 syndrome happen?

Experts are still researching the reasons behind post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. Dr. Pop-Vicas said some believe it is due to an over-reactive immune response to the virus. Another reason could be persistent inflammation after initial infection.

What is the treatment of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome?

Experts have not yet identified a specific treatment for COVID-19 “long haulers.”

“Pending more research, treatment would be determined based on the patient’s individual symptoms and condition,” Dr. Pop-Vicas said in a release

Patients with new or worsening COVID-19 symptoms should be medically evaluated to rule out anything serious or life-threatening. They should also be referred to specialty clinics if needed for an individualized rehabilitation plan, according to Dr. Pop-Vicas.

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