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Most Common Symptoms of Long COVID

Plus, what to do when the effects of a coronavirus infection won’t go away


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AARP (Source: Getty Images)

Millions of people who have had COVID-19 find themselves suffering from a host of debilitating symptoms that can persist for weeks or even months after their initial coronavirus infection fades. 

This phenomenon, known as long COVID, has puzzled experts since near the start of the pandemic. And while research is starting to shore up some answers, Greg Vanichkachorn, M.D., formerly with Mayo Clinic, says, “we don’t really have [long COVID] nailed down yet.” 

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A big reason is because “it looks like more and more symptoms can be associated with this condition,” says Vanichkachorn, an occupational and aerospace medicine specialist who was the medical director of Mayo Clinic’s COVID Activity Rehabilitation Program and is now a physician with Delta Air Lines.

In fact, the list of the most commonly reported long COVID symptoms maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes nearly 20, ranging from neurological complications to digestive disorders. Some studies have uncovered more than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19, adding issues such as hair loss and vision loss to the mix. Others estimate that number is much higher — closer to 200.

Still, some symptoms seem to be more prevalent.

A study published May 25, 2023, in the journal JAMA identified 12 symptoms that most set apart people with and without long COVID. They are: 

  1. Post-exertional malaise, or the worsening of symptoms following physical or mental exertion — even minor effort. 
  2. Fatigue 
  3. Brain fog
  4. Dizziness
  5. Gastrointestinal symptoms 
  6. Heart palpitations
  7. Issues with sexual desire or capacity
  8. Loss of smell or taste
  9. Thirst
  10. Chronic cough
  11. Chest pain
  12. Abnormal movements

New research from AARP reflects similar findings, with older adults reporting that their most common long COVID symptoms are fatigue, brain fog, cough, and loss of taste or smell. Results from the survey, published Feb. 6, 2024, show that nearly 1 in 5 adults ages 50 and older have experienced long COVID. 

Video: Why Fatigue After Workouts May Signal Long COVID

Symptoms can be life altering

The symptoms, however, are only “half the picture,” Vanichkachorn says. “The other half is how those symptoms really have changed a person’s ability to live their normal lives.” 

A handful of viruses can cause prolonged illness (experts call this post-acute sequelae), and recovery can be especially difficult for people who required hospitalization or intensive care. 

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But what’s different about long COVID is that it seems to be more widespread, and the symptoms that people experience, even when they no longer test positive for coronavirus, seem to be more robust, Vanichkachorn says. “We’ve had patients complain of fatigue after a viral infection before … but patients after coronavirus infection, they really have some profound fatigue.”

For some, this means routine tasks such as getting dressed or taking a shower require assistance. Others have trouble completing everyday errands like grocery shopping or doing the laundry due to their symptoms — “and of course, going to work,” Vanichkachorn adds. 

Among adults 50 and older living with long COVID, 21 percent say it has had a major impact on their physical health; 18 percent say it has affected their mental health. Twenty percent of older adults surveyed by AARP say long COVID has impacted their social life. 

Priya Duggal, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, estimates that 3 to 5 percent of people who have had COVID-19 “feel they cannot function normally in everyday life” due to lasting symptoms. 

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Some people may be at higher risk 

A few folks may be more at risk for long COVID than others, though Duggal emphasizes that “no one gets a free pass.” People who had underlying health conditions before their coronavirus infection may be more likely to develop long COVID, the CDC says. Research also finds that more women report long COVID symptoms than men, and it tends to be more prevalent in middle-aged adults. 

According to the CDC, unvaccinated individuals are more likely to get long COVID than people who received the vaccine. And research, while still ongoing, has also shown that people who treat COVID-19 with an antiviral like Paxlovid are less likely to experience lingering symptoms. 

“When you're vaccinated or when you treat yourself early on, the burden of virus is much less, and therefore, I think you are less likely to go on to develop these longer-term symptoms,” says Paul Offit, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the book Tell Me When It’s Over: An Insider’s Guide to Deciphering COVID Myths and Navigating our Post-Pandemic World. “So I think anything that decreases viral replication — whether it's vaccination or whether it is early treatment — is a value.”

Talk to your doctor early if you experience symptoms

Lots of questions surrounding long COVID are still unanswered, but one thing is certain: Experts say if you had COVID-19 and notice any new or prolonged symptoms three or four weeks out from your infection, talk to your primary care physician. Don’t wait months before calling for an appointment, Vanichkachorn says. If you don’t have a primary care provider, seek care from an internist, Duggal adds.

There isn’t a one-size-fits all treatment for long COVID, Offit says, and that’s because there likely isn’t just one cause. Right now, a lot of it comes down to managing individual symptoms and providing supportive care, and Vanichkachorn says the earlier you start that treatment, the better.  

AARP research, however, found that less than half of the adults surveyed saw their health care provider to address their ongoing COVID-related symptoms.

It’s also important for people with chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes to reach out to their doctor if they notice a change in their numbers after recovering from COVID-19, says Sabyasachi Sen, M.D., professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. It could signal a long-term effect from the infection.

The CDC has tips for patients on how to plan for an appointment to discuss long COVID. The agency recommends preparing a list of your current and past medical conditions in advance, and writing down your experience with COVID-19 and any new or lingering conditions. Be sure to include: 

  • When they started
  • How they affect your life         
  • How often they occur
  • What makes them worse

Finally, bring a list of your current medications, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements, to your appointment, and ask questions when you have them. 

Editor's Note: This story, first published May 19, 2022, has been updated with new information.

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