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COVID-19 Long-Haulers: When Symptoms Outlast the Virus

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Johns Hopkins University recently launched the COVID Long Study to better understand the long-term effects of COVID-19. If you’re dealing with ongoing symptoms, consider taking this short, online survey.

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Long-term COVID symptoms are just one of the more unique, and unpleasant, features of the novel coronavirus. And, like a lot of coronavirus-related research, scientists are still trying to figure out just why it happens and how we can help those suffering.

What is a COVID long-hauler?

Most people who get COVID-19 recover to full health in about two weeks’ time. COVID long-haulers are people who don’t fully recover after catching the coronavirus. Symptoms of what’s been dubbed “long COVID” vary by the individual and can come and go without explanation. Eight weeks of symptoms seems to indicate that someone has long COVID.

What are the signs of long COVID?

Since COVID is a respiratory virus, most long-lasting symptoms include coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and other low-level symptoms. The biggest shared symptom among long haulers? Extreme fatigue.

If you’re feeling especially run down and sleep doesn’t restore you like it used to, you may be a long hauler. Chronic fatigue may come in waves. Some days, just walking up a flight of stairs may wipe you out. Other days, you may find it easier to go for a long walk. But, sometimes after a productive day, you may need a day or two to recover. Other symptoms may include brain fog or difficulty concentrating.

What causes long COVID?

COVID produces an inflammatory response in your body. While this is a defense mechanism for your health—an immune response—it can also cause lasting harm. Dangerous swelling and tissue damage may result. Research is still underway, but many experts liken long COVID to other forms of chronic fatigue, which can be more common after certain types of viruses, like Epstein-Barr or human herpes virus 6. That knowledge gives the medical community a good starting point for understanding long COVID. Harvard Medical School is exploring four potential causes of long COVID:

  • An ongoing low level of inflammation in the brain.
  • An autoimmune condition in which the body makes antibodies that attack the brain.
  • Decreased blood flow to the brain, due to abnormalities of the autonomic nervous system.
  • Difficulty making enough energy molecules to satisfy the needs of the brain and body.

Who is most likely to become a COVID long hauler?

Surprisingly, most COVID long-haulers are people who’ve had mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. It doesn’t seem to happen as frequently in people that were hospitalized or have experienced severe COVID. Again, researchers aren’t quite sure why.

Johns Hopkins University estimates that 10%-30% of patients experience prolonged symptoms. Since more than 30 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID, a significant portion of the population may be dealing with the effects of long COVID.

Does the vaccine help COVID long haulers?

Some COVID long haulers are finding relief after getting the vaccine. Some immunologists think this may be because the vaccine gives your body the boost it needs to clear any remaining virus fragments. A small fraction of long haulers reported that the vaccine made their symptoms worse. Either way, doctors recommend getting the vaccine. Beyond potentially relieving your long COVID symptoms, the vaccine also can prevent you from getting reinfected with COVID.

You aren’t alone.

There are millions of COVID long haulers across the U.S. and the best and brightest hospitals and doctors are working to find out why it happens. There’s good reason to believe that more will be known about long COVID in the coming months. Consider searching for COVID long hauler groups on social media. Many people have found comfort in sharing their story.

If you’re experiencing any long-term symptoms, it’s important that you see your primary care doctor. While long COVID doesn’t have a cure, your doctor can help you find comfort by treating certain symptoms. The vaccine may also provide relief, so be sure to get your shot when you’re able and eligible.