Long COVID Treatment
Why choose UCLA Health for COVID-19 treatment?
Most people diagnosed with COVID-19 make a full recovery. But for one out of every three people who had the virus, the symptoms of COVID continue to disrupt daily life for months or even a year afterward. The National Institute of Health (NIH) refers to this syndrome as “long COVID.”
According to Nisha Viswanathan, MD, director of the Long COVID Program at UCLA Health, research shows that long COVID may lead to increased illness and disability issues for patients around the world. “As we continue to discover new phenomenon associated with having had COVID, we’re working to understand and define more specific criteria for long COVID,” she says.
The good news is that health systems like UCLA Health are putting long COVID programs in place to help diagnose and manage the symptoms of this condition. Here’s what you need to know about long COVID:
What is long COVID
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe long COVID as a range of symptoms that persist for weeks and months after a COVID-19 infection. The symptoms can affect multiple organs and systems in the body.
It’s important to understand that long COVID is not just your body’s inability to recover from the virus. “It’s an inflammatory condition causing your body to remain permanently activated after having COVID-19,” Dr. Viswanathan says. “These symptoms are persisting from the viral infection itself.”
Other common names for this condition include post-acute COVID syndrome (PACS), post-COVID syndrome or long-haul COVID. Researchers call it post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC).
Who can get post-COVID syndrome
Long COVID can happen to anyone who has had COVID-19, no matter how mild or severe the case and regardless of pre-existing medical conditions. But if you had COVID-19 but experienced no symptoms (asymptomatic), Dr. Viswanathan says it’s unlikely for you to develop long COVID.
People with long COVID typically have:
• A previous case of COVID-19 with symptoms, whether mild or severe (symptomatic)
• Symptoms that persist for 12 or more weeks following their diagnosis
• Specific symptoms that affect the brain (neurological), heart (cardiac), lungs (pulmonary) or mental health (psychiatric)
According to Dr. Viswanathan, 33% of people with long COVID struggle with lingering neurological issues that may include:
• Brain fog (difficulty thinking or concentrating)
• Cognitive deficits
• Dizziness on standing (orthostatic hypotension)
• Eye issues that include blurry vision or double vision
• Loss of taste and/or smell (parosmia)
While some cardiovascular issues may be permanent damage associated with having acute COVID, others are symptomatic of long COVID and include:
• High blood pressure
• Palpitations (fast-beating or pounding heart)
• Persistent chest pain
• Shortness of breath
Experts are not yet sure whether associated mental health issues stem directly from the COVID virus or are a result of living with other long-term symptoms. The effects include:
• Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Symptoms associated with the respiratory system include:
• Hypoxia (oxygen levels are fine at rest but drop when walking)
• Shortness of breath
Diagnosing and treating long-haul COVID
Health systems like UCLA Health are quickly developing programs and protocols for diagnosing and treating long COVID. “Programs specific to long COVID offer a standardized approach to diagnosing and treating these patients,” Dr. Viswanathan says. “We have a dedicated care team that includes internal medicine physicians and specialists to help patients with their symptoms.”
To diagnose long COVID, the first step is performing tests to rule out all other possible causes of the symptoms. If the diagnosis is long COVID, the care team determines individualized treatment based on each patient’s specific symptoms.
“You can’t assume that you’re a long-hauler. You need to see your doctor to be sure,” Dr. Viswanathan says. “Twenty-five percent of the time, there is another medical condition at play that either wasn’t previously diagnosed or was simply triggered by COVID-19.”
The CDC continues to gather information about the long-term effects of COVID-19 through a nationwide study called INSPIRE (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS-CoV-2 Infection Registry). UCLA Health is one of eight academic medical centers chosen to participate in the study. For more information on the INSPIRE study, or to find out about participating at UCLA Health, visit inspirecovidstudy.med.ucla.edu.
How to prevent post-acute COVID syndrome?
Unfortunately, once you have COVID-19, there is nothing you can do to prevent long COVID. None of the current drugs used to treat COVID-19 have had any effect on long COVID either.
According to Dr. Viswanathan, the single best way to avoid long COVID is to get vaccinated. “About 5% of people will still get infected with COVID-19 after being vaccinated,” she says, “but it will be a very short course, a minimal infection and your probability of developing long COVID is then very low.”
Become a UCLA patient
General requirements to enter the long COVID program at UCLA Health:
- Must have a positive COVID test
- Must be 12 weeks out of symptomatic disease
- Referral by PCP if you don’t meet the criteria above (ie. you believe you had COVID in March 2020, when tests weren’t readily available)