Long Covid: the frustrating illness that never seems to end
Law student Aisling Gorman was preparing for the last of her examinations of the Fall term when she started to experience the first symptoms of Covid-19. Months later, she is still feeling the effects of its related ailment, Long Covid.
Not everyone knows about Long Covid, an incapacitating health condition. But as more people become aware that a Covid-19 infection can lead to a panoply of debilitating symptoms that last from weeks to many months, it may well become the biggest reason - second only to Covid-19’s sometimes fatal outcome – to avoid contracting the virus.
The Lancet medical journal calls this complex condition “an urgent public health priority”. It reported on April 22 that people who become infected with Covid-19, also called the Coronavirus Disease, have a more than one-in-five chance of experiencing ongoing and often debilitating symptoms that last for five weeks, with some ten per cent of patients still complaining of symptoms at 12 weeks.
More likely to suffer long term symptoms are those whose health was already compromised before becoming infected with Covid-19 or who became very ill with the virus, but scientists are yet to be able to say who will be subject to it.
Indeed, Ms Gorman seems atypical, a victim of the seeming randomness of Long Covid.
She contracted Covid-19 in the Autumn of 2020 – and continues to feel the effects of long Covid to this day.
A 26-year-old Bermuda resident, Miss Gorman was studying law in San Diego. She loved hiking, exercise classes and the California lifestyle, exploring the historic and beautiful San Diego area where she was also learning to surf.
She said: “I got Covid during my fall exams, and first noticed the symptoms the afternoon before my last exam.
“My boyfriend’s roommate was back working in an office, and his office had an outbreak, so the roommate brought Covid home from work.”
Miss Gorman said she was initially unwell for about a week.
“The first night or so I had a really high fever and muscle aches. Once the fever cleared up, I was more-or-less fine, just very tired and achy – although I did lose my sense of taste and smell.”
Initially, Miss Gorman said getting sick with Covid meant she had to delay her last exam of the session, so coming down with Covid-19 had made her feel “a bit frustrated”.
But as time went on, some symptoms did not clear up.
“I was pretty tired and lethargic. I remember going to make a soup one day and being so exhausted from chopping up carrots and potatoes,” she recalled.
“Luckily, after I finished up my (delayed) exam, I was on a month-long winter break, so all-in-all, if there was ever a time I had to catch Covid, this probably was the best time.”
She said she recovered from the bout of Covid-19 in about a week, but the loss of her sense of taste and smell lasted another two or three weeks. “They came back gradually - nuts and chocolate were very faint-tasting for a while.”
While Miss Gorman says while she feels generally healthy, she has faced additional health issues.
“I can’t definitively say that these are Covid related, but it does seem likely – it’s very difficult to run more than two miles, and my lungs ache when I do so.
“HIIT workouts and running are just slower, harder, feel like they take a greater toll on the body in terms of recovery time after Covid than before. Overall, though, I do feel generally healthy - and lucky it was not worse.”
But the return to health has not been smooth.
“It has been five months and I have recently been experiencing new symptoms,” she said.
“I’ve been smelling a sulphurish, egg, natural gas scent – and now I am tasting it in some foods. I have found some articles of others experiencing similar things months after Covid. (see link at end)
“But the main cold/flu symptoms went away after a couple of weeks - except the lingering faint taste and smell.”
The law student described this ebb and flow of symptoms as ‘confusing’. But the experience has “… definitely made me appreciate my scent and taste way more.”
A little-known fact about long Covid is it was identified and given its name by patients. The name emerged as Covid-19 sufferers who could not seem to shake a range of symptoms took to various media as well as more formal channels to establish the condition, says Medscape, a medical news website for medical professionals. Long Covid has a more scientific name now – Post-acute sequelae of Sars-Co-2 infection or PASC.
As in Miss Gorman’s case, shortness of breath (the scientific term for it is dyspnea) is the most common symptom. Victims have reported being unable to undertake physical activity for any length of time because they run out of breath so rapidly. Again, as Miss Gorman experienced, other common indicators are a cough and loss of the taste and smell senses. Additionally, victims report fatigue, a decline in their quality of life, muscular weakness, joint pain, persistent need for oxygen, anxiety and depression, PTSD, brain fog (also known as cognitive disturbances), tinnitus, headaches, palpitations, chest pain, thromboembolism, chronic kidney disease and hair loss.
The Lancet said: “A key challenge to treating long Covid is the absence of a universally recognized case definition.”
It added it is not known whether long Covid is a novel and distinct syndrome, or multiple, partly overlapping syndromes.
Miss Gorman will likely get a vaccine against Covid-19 later this Spring as it has just become available for everyone in California.
Would she encourage or discourage friends to get it?
“Hmmm. In general, I think that Covid has encouraged heightened reactions of sick shaming, fear and guilt on a peer-to-peer level, as well as a sense of ‘I know better than you’ - so while I personally will get the vaccine before going to see family, I am not sure that I will actively encourage others to do the same. If people ask for my opinion, I will share it, as I am for this article.
“I also think my law programme will require mandatory vaccinations before returning to in-person classes, so as far as my friends out in California, I think the law school will end up doing most of the encouraging/requiring,” she said.
Despite the lengthy and on-going encounter with the effects of the virus that Miss Gorman is experiencing, she does see a silver lining.
“Even before Covid I was a bit of a germaphobe, so I do have to admit that if there is anything positive to take away from all of the infection control measures, I am loving that surfaces are getting wiped down more, and high contact areas are getting the cleaning they deserve.”