How Do You Know if You Have Long COVID?

Jennifer E. Engen

Key Takeaways

  • Lasting symptoms don’t have to be debilitating to be considered long COVID.
  • A standardized definition for long COVID can help health care providers diagnose their patients.
  • The potential treatment options for long COVID depend on an individual’s symptoms.

Anyone who becomes infected with COVID-19 can experience a wide range of post-COVID conditions, including symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, or even changes in menstrual cycles. However, the health problems that sometimes appear after infection can manifest in many different ways and levels of severity, which makes long COVID difficult to define.

It can be challenging to know exactly when lingering symptoms cross over to the long COVID categorization. Because of this some people who experience persistent symptoms for a few weeks rather than months have wondered whether their experience should fall under a new term like “medium COVID,” or a gray area between infection and long COVID.

However, a new category might not necessarily be called for.

“There is no clear-cut definition of how long a symptom has to persist before it is considered long COVID,” Bryan Lau, PhD, a professor and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-lead of the Johns Hopkins COVID Long Study, told Verywell. “Rather, it has to do with the continuation of symptoms and/or the development of new symptoms after what is considered the acute phase, by which we mean by the period of time it takes to clear the viral infection and generally recover.” 

Many people find themselves with persistent symptoms that allow them to get through their usual routines, but not as easily as before their infection. Individuals who have these lasting symptoms that don’t necessarily make them unable to perform daily functions may also wonder whether they fall under the long COVID umbrella term.

“You do not have to display debilitating or life-altering symptoms for your condition to be considered long COVID,” LaTasha Perkins, MD, a family physician at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, told Verywell. “While not fully understood yet, long COVID in both its mildest and most serious forms is being heavily discussed in the medical field. No person, regardless of the severity of their long COVID symptoms, should be dismissed.”

What This Means For You

If you have new or lasting symptoms after recovering from a COVID-19 infection, you should get in touch with your healthcare provider to determine any potential treatment or therapies.

Would a Standardized Long COVID Definition Help?

Until now, long COVID—or what experts call post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC)—still didn’t have a clear-cut definition because of how differently it manifests in individuals. A standardized definition of long COVID can make it easier to medical professionals to diagnose patients, experts said.

“A standardized definition provides a general guideline at the very least,” Perkins said. “For patients, it can encourage them to seek medical care and feel justified in their concern about their symptoms. For providers, a definition is used to guide treatment plans, just as it is used with any other diagnosis.”

Back in October, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a clinical case definition of long COVID. They described it as a condition among people with a history of probable or confirmed COVID-19 infection that occurs about three months from the onset of COVID-19 symptoms and lasts for at least two months. This definition is intentionally broad and non-specific to encompass the wide range of symptoms and severities, Lau said.

It’s difficult to capture every aspect of long COVID—or any other infection or complication—around the globe because there are many factors that can determine the appropriate course of action, including geographic region and social environment, Priya Duggal, PhD, professor and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-lead of the Johns Hopkins COVID Long Study, told Verywell. 

“Overall, I believe the WHO’s definition includes the necessary components for experts and patients to use when practicing their best judgment,” she added.

How Are Long COVID Symptoms Treated?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one single treatment or medication that can treat long COVID.

“Long COVID is not one set of symptoms or diagnoses,” Duggal said. “People report a different set of symptoms or even just one organ system that is affected. Given this heterogeneity, there is no one medication or therapy that can be recommended. However, we encourage patients to seek care with their primary care physicians, and with multi-disciplinary long COVID clinics.”

People with long COVID often try various medicines, remedies, supplements, and dietary changes to manage their symptoms. However, self-prescription may lead to harmful drug interactions and inappropriate off-label use. It’s important for individuals with any lasting COVID-19 symptoms to consult medical professionals about potential therapies that may treat symptoms to an extent.

More studies are needed to determine whether COVID-19 vaccines can improve long COVID symptoms among unvaccinated patients who then get the vaccine.

“The treatment options for long-COVID are tailored to the symptoms,” Perkins said. “If you are experiencing a long-term symptom, you should connect with your primary care doctor to rule out other illnesses and complications before deciding on a treatment.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

https://www.verywellhealth.com/defining-long-covid-case-5224460

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