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How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Post-COVID Syndrome

If you had COVID-19 and still experience consistent symptoms, you may have post-COVID syndrome, sometimes referred to as long COVID.

Typically, symptoms of viral infections dissipate with the virus itself—a cough, congestion or fever may last a few days but will go away quickly with rest and other physician-recommended treatments. But if you’ve had COVID-19 and still don’t feel back to normal a few months later, you’re not alone. About 10% of people who have recovered from the virus develop chronic symptoms, lasting three to six months or more—a phenomenon referred to as post-COVID syndrome or long COVID.

What does post-COVID syndrome look like?

The COVID virus can latch on to many organs, including the heart, lungs, kidney and brain. This is why manifestations of post-COVID syndrome can be different depending on the person. “Post-COVID syndrome symptoms can include chronic fatigue, long-term exercise intolerance, chest pain in the absence of heart disease, brain fog or diminished cognitive functioning,” says pulmonologist Dr. Jesse Roman. “And these symptoms are sometimes subtle, making them hard to recognize and diagnose.”

Dr. Jesse Roman standing with his arms folded looking into the camera in a hallway of a clinic

Dr. Jesse Roman (Photo credit: ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services)

How is post-COVID syndrome diagnosed?

Dr. Roman shares that this is a condition of exclusion. “If patients come in noting that they have subtle changes in everyday functioning, we’ll test them for other conditions first,” he says. “For instance, if someone complains of shortness of breath, we may take an EKG reading, evaluate their lung function or obtain imaging studies. If there is no objective evidence of disease, it’s considered post-COVID syndrome.” In addition, your provider may evaluate your mental health, as many people recovering from COVID suffer from anxiety, depression and PTSD, which can result in physical symptoms.

Could my cold symptoms be indicative of post-COVID syndrome?

Traditional cold symptoms, such as sniffles, fever or a cough, are typically not associated with post-COVID syndrome. “Long COVID consists of subtle changes that are chronic, meaning you’re experiencing them for more than three months,” says Dr. Roman. “If you’re experiencing new or acute symptoms, it could be a cold, bronchitis, influenza or another case of COVID.”

When should I visit my healthcare provider?

If you’re experiencing chronic symptoms after recovering from COVID—whether you had a mild, moderate or severe case—you should tell your primary care provider. “It’s important for a physician to evaluate your health and ensure your organs are functioning well,” says Dr. Roman. “While there are currently no FDA-approved treatments for post-COVID syndrome, it should be monitored closely.”

Should I be worried about developing post-COVID syndrome?

Thankfully, healthcare providers are seeing fewer and fewer cases of post-COVID syndrome. “We have to assume that each variant of COVID has different implications,” says Dr. Roman. “I’m hopeful that post-COVID syndrome won’t be a long-term problem. We’re constantly learning more about the virus and its variants, more people are getting vaccinated and we’re developing newer, more effective treatments—all factors that can affect the incidence, timing and manifestation of the virus.”

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From the Experts, Healthy You