Some COVID-19 sufferers have what’s being called “long-tail” COVID-19 symptoms, meaning they have symptoms of the virus for weeks, even months.
On May 5, 2020, Paul Garner, professor of infectious diseases at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, brought attention to the issue in a blog post on the website of BMJ, a medical journal. In the post, he described lingering symptoms that just wouldn’t go away.
“In mid March I developed covid-19. For almost seven weeks I have been through a roller coaster of ill health, extreme emotions, and utter exhaustion. Although not hospitalised, it has been frightening and long,” Garner wrote.
The illness ebbs and flows, but never goes away. Health professionals, employers, partners, and people with the disease need to know that this illness can last for weeks, and the long tail is not some “post-viral fatigue syndrome”—it is the disease. People who have a more protracted illness need help to understand and cope with the constantly shifting, bizarre symptoms, and their unpredictable course.
According to the Guardian, there is “growing evidence that the virus causes a far greater array of symptoms than was previously understood” and that they can last longer than initially expected. Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London, told the Guardian that he believes “a small but significant number of people” have long-tailed symptoms that can last weeks. He runs a COVID-19 symptom tracker app which showed that 200,000 of 3-4 million people using it reported having symptoms lingering at least six weeks, according to The Miami Herald.
The newspaper added that some people continue to test positive because they have “dead virus fragments” in their bodies.
Bruce R. Troen, MD, a professor and chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine who works at the University of Buffalo, told Heavy in an interview on COVID-19 nursing home deaths that COVID-19 differs from seasonal flu in several ways. It’s more contagious, it has a longer incubation stage, and it can have a wide array of symptoms that affect the whole body “from head to toe,” even though people think of it as respiratory. The symptoms “are not confined, are broader in scope,” he said.
Here’s what you need to know:
Garner Isn’t Alone; Other People Also Report Having COVID-19 Symptoms for Weeks
The virus also has a long duration on the front end in many cases.
Experts say that it can take about a week of symptoms to know whether an infected person will end up in the hospital and worsen or start to get better. The World Health Organization reports:
he median time from onset to clinical recovery for mild cases is approximately 2 weeks and is 3-6 weeks for patients with severe or critical disease. Preliminary data suggests that the time period from onset to the development of severe disease, including hypoxia, is 1 week. Among patients who have died, the time from symptom onset to outcome ranges from 2-8 weeks.
According to the Miami Herald, government experts have indicated that mild cases of coronavirus go away in about two weeks but some are “suffering symptoms of the disease months after diagnosis.”
Business Insider interviewed four younger coronavirus sufferers who said their symptoms had lingered for more than a month. Lauren Nichols told the site she started out with a dry throat and then diarrhea and “low-grade fever, accompanied by body aches and pounding headaches.” The shortness of breath followed later. She had two positive COVID-19 tests almost a month apart and her symptoms were still here 51 days later, according to Business Insider.
Garner says he has experienced a variety of symptoms. At first, he lost his sense of smell. He suffered from “heaviness and malaise.” He had chest tightness and felt foggy.
“My condition deteriorated. One afternoon I suddenly developed a tachycardia, tightness in the chest, and felt so unwell I thought I was dying. My mind became foggy,” he wrote. He also suffered extreme fatigue but noted that he would feel better before suddenly feeling worse. He faced an array of symptoms:
The illness went on and on. The symptoms changed, it was like an advent calendar, every day there was a surprise, something new. A muggy head; acutely painful calf; upset stomach; tinnitus; pins and needles; aching all over; breathlessness; dizziness; arthritis in my hands; weird sensation in the skin with synthetic materials
He concluded by saying he was trying to get the word out that coronavirus symptoms can last for several weeks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote that “persons with COVID-19 who have symptoms and were directed to care for themselves at home may discontinue isolation under the following conditions”:
At least 3 days (72 hours) have passed since recovery defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and,
At least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
According to NBC News, coronavirus is a virus with a “slow burn,” and experts say that, “very often,” the earliest symptoms are “minor physical complaints — slight cough, headache, low-grade fever,” that gradually get worse. Loss of taste and smell and red rimmed eyes have also emerged as possible symptoms of COVID-19. It often takes about a week after symptoms start to know whether the virus will worsen or the person will just get better, experts say. About half of the people who have COVID-19 never get symptoms at all, according to Fox News.
You can read other patients’ accounts of their fight against COVID-19 here.