For many of those hit by COVID-19, the disease itself is only part of the battle. The other part? Lasting recovery.
“Most patients recover within roughly a month,” says Purvi Parwani, MD. She’s the director of the COVID-19 Heart Clinic at the Loma Linda University Health International Heart Institute in California. But some people continue to have symptoms weeks — or even months — later.
Patients with long-term symptoms are known as COVID long-haulers. “Long-haulers typically have mild symptoms that continue to linger, with a worsening of the symptoms over time,” Dr. Parwani says. And the experience is common. A new study in JAMA Network Open found that a third of COVID-19 patients still had symptoms after 6 months. The same number reported worse quality of life.
The most common symptoms were fatigue and loss of taste and smell. Other long-term symptoms include depression, brain fog, headache and joint pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you count yourself among the COVID long-haulers, you’re probably searching for much-needed symptom relief. Unfortunately, there’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID recovery, which means treatments aren’t well-defined, Dr. Parwani says. But there are a few basic things you can do to cope and feel more comfortable. (If paying for your medications is making your feel worse, the Optum Perks discount card can help you save up to 80%. Download yours now.)
1. Watch your stress levels
It’s natural to feel stressed when you have significant symptoms. Mindfulness, however, can help with triggers and recovery, says Dr. Parwani.
Building stress-reduction techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises into your daily routine could help ease the trigger that causes dizziness, chest pain and high blood pressure, she adds.
Start and end your day with a mindful meditation. You can use guided meditation apps such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer. Or take 5 quiet minutes to focus on your breath whenever you feel stress building up.
2. Get your sleep
Sleep is important no matter who you are, but it’s especially vital for COVID long-haulers. Skipping sleep adds stress to your body, which can trigger or worsen your lasting COVID-19 symptoms. And you know how hard it is to function well when you’re sleep-deprived and not fighting a persistent virus.
The recommended 7 to 9 hours every night gives your body 1 less challenge to overcome. And that means it has more resources to help you heal for good, Dr. Parwani says.
3. Eat heart-healthy foods
“If your diet is high in salt or fried food, this can act as a trigger for blood pressure, which manifests in a variety of cardiac symptoms,” Dr. Parwani says.
Instead, focus on a plant-rich diet. “Avoid any processed food, junk food, red meat, sugary drinks and any sort of processed sugar,” she says. Once you take those out, you’re left with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fish. “If you have to have meat, make sure it’s not processed.”
Loading up on heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory foods may also help ease pain, fatigue and even depression.
4. Ease into exercise
Exercise may seem impossible if you’re struggling with chronic fatigue. But regular physical activity plays an important role in overall health. It improves mood, keeps your heart healthy and strengthens your muscles. It also increases your energy.
“Any kind of exercise is good,” Dr. Parwani says. So do what you can as often as possible. For you, that might mean going for a slow 30-minute walk or pedaling away on a stationary bike while you watch TV. That’s okay. “Allow yourself to do as much as you can,” Dr. Parwani says. Do more only as you’re able.
5. Follow the 3 Ps: pace, plan, prioritize
This advice from the Royal College of Occupational Therapists in London can help you conserve your energy. Because when you’re dealing with COVID-19 fatigue, even routine activities such as taking a shower can knock you out. Here’s how it works:
- Pace yourself. This means doing something until you’re tired — not completely wiped out. If you’re walking up the stairs, do 5 and then rest. Do 5 more, rest again.
- Plan your activities. Make a list of the things you normally do each day or week. Then make a plan for how you can break them up into smaller tasks. If you usually clean your house on Saturday mornings, aim to do a room (or part of a room) each day instead.
- Prioritize what’s necessary. The answers will be different for everyone. To help you figure out what’s necessary for you, ask yourself, What do I want to do today? What can I put off? What can I ask someone else to do?
6. Work with a specialist if you can
Post-COVID treatment is still in the early stages, which means there aren’t any guidelines for doctors to follow yet, Dr. Parwani says.
However, if you want expert help, your best bet is to find a doctor who has chosen to focus on post-COVID treatment. “The way we [as doctors] learn about this is by seeing and treating more patients,” she says.
To find a physician, search for hospitals that have set up post-COVID recovery clinics in your area. You can also search the list maintained by Survivor Corps (see below).
7. Seek support
Coping with the long-term effects of COVID-19 isn’t easy. It can be scary, frustrating and lonely. But as the number of long-haulers continues to grow, so do the sources for support. Here are a few to check out:
Coping with long-term COVID-19 is stressful enough without worrying about how to afford your treatment. If you need assistance paying for your medications, Optum Perks can help. Here’s how.
Long-haul statistics: JAMA Network Open. (2021). “Sequelae in Adults at 6 Months After COVID-19 Infection”
Long-haul basics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention