Lana Lynch had resigned in one month ago to never getting better. She still felt yawning, still got some headaches everyday and remained to watch how much pressure she exerted herself each day. She had to come to terms with her new normal -- until she didn't have to.
After her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID 19 vaccine in May, Lynch, a 32-year-old from Texas, noticed that she was not nearly as tired anymore. She could get through a yoga class without hitting a wall. I felt like I had some energy, says she, but I didn’t want to jinx it at all.
After weeks of waiting for the other shoe to drop, she says, I feel confident enough to declare myself cured.
In recent months, a large but growing number of people with Long COVID — the name was adopted by those who have developed serious health problems after catching the virus — are experiencing improvements like Lynch’s. These stories are universal and far from anecdotal. But after months of new illness, even small improvements can feel like a new lease on life for those lucky enough to experience them. Lynch says, '' just knowing that it is not really anchoring me down, '' is a huge weight off my shoulders.
Experts believe somewhere between 10% and 30% of COVID 19 patients develop chronic symptoms, including fatigue, gastrointestinal pain, brain fog, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal problems, although the severity can vary. Doctors still aren't entirely sure how to treat Long COVID or even what causes it, though there are two main theories: either the remnants of the virus linger in some people's bodies, or certain elements of the immune system rev into overdrive after exposure to the virus, forcing the body to attack itself.
No two long COVID cases are exactly alike, which complicates the search for treatments. In one survey in July 2020, a group of about 1500 different COVID patients with the support group Survivor Corps reported almost 100 Long symptoms. Some patients have visible damage to a particular organ, such as the lungs or heart, while others have no obvious reason for their suffering — their lab tests and scans come back normal despite how sick they feel.
Many patients with chronic COVID would get better until they were cured about recently. In previous conversations with TIME, multiple experts have said it's possible that Long COVID can last for decades or even the rest of a patient's life, similar to myalgic fatigue syndrome viral fatigue syndrome, another debilitating condition that can come from other illnesses. This may end up being true for some patients, but others are beginning to report improvement.
Dr. Federico Cerrone is a pulmonologist and the co-medical director of Atlantic Health's COVID Recovery Center in New Jersey, which has treated about 500 patients with long COVID since it opened in October 2020. Some of their patients have seen it just that, Cerrone says, through the years, while others have received luck after working with sleep or behavioral health specialists. Some — but not all — long COVID patients with persistent respiratory symptoms respond to medications like steroids and bronchodilators, adds Dr. Gerard Criner, director of the Temple Lung Center in Philadelphia. Doctors also get better at spotting syndromes that may overlap with long COVID, like the autonomic nervous system disorder known as POTS. But there is still no 'cure' for long COVID.
'There seem to be some individual success stories, but I don't know if I could tell you that one thing fits all, Cerrone says. It sometimes doesn't work and sometimes works. We've learned a lot, but there is still a lot to learn.
In some cases, the COVID 19 vaccine seems to help. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, who is studying how COVID 19 -Vectors available in the U.S. affect Long COVID patients, says that getting a shot seems to reduce symptoms, at least a little bit, for some sufferers. But her colleagues and researchers claim some people feel worst, but some feel nothing relief.
Iwasaki and her team are taking blood and saliva samples from cancer patients before and after a vaccination to monitor changes in their immune responses. By comparing those results to any changes in symptoms, her team hopes to determine if vaccination can help lead to recovery. It's possible that the vaccine-produced immune response more thanrides the body's attacks on itself, or that anti-vaccinal antibodies help clear all lingering remnants of the virus, Iwasaki says, but as of now they are just hypotheses. Depending on what she and her team find, the research could not only be impactful for Long COVID sufferers, but also for people with ME CFS and other post-viral illnesses, she says.
Netta Wang, a 24 year-old from California who tested positive for COVID 19 in August 2020, can't say for sure that the vaccine helped her to feel better, but she did notice an improvement in her symptoms after taking her second Moderna dose in March. Around the same time, her doctor recommended that she begin exercising again to help rebuild her strength and energy. Wang was nervous, since many people with Long COVID feel worse after physical exertion, but she was surprised that she was able to ride a bike without relapsing. Her strength was slowly restored and she now considers herself 95% recovered, though she's not sure whether that's due to the vaccine, pure physical activity or by chance.
Dr. Hassan Sajjad, a pulmonologist at Iowa's Mercy Medical Center involved in post-COVID care says some of his patients have also had luck with physical therapy and physical activity. Physical therapy can help rebuild strength, improve organ health and minimize the risk of complications like inflammatory blood clots, he says. As is typical with Long COVID, it's not entirely clear why movement helps some people and makes others feel worse.
I am very lucky. Wang explains that health and bodies are very random. I know lots of people who are a year on and I don't think they are ever doing anything wrong.
With so little known about their condition, some long COVID patients have taken their recovery into their own hands. Doctors can't explain it themselves, says Sherri Klipowicz, a 35-year-old from Colorado who was sick with what she believes was COVID -- 19 in March 2020, so they are really listening to us.
Klipowicz started to feel better after months of tinkering with her diet, sleep and physical activity. She now practices restorative yoga, gets supplements like magnesium and glutathione and follows a diet low on plants and heavy on gluten and dairy. She also works with an insomnia specialist, since she's noticed that her symptoms are worse when she sleeps poorly and has tried ozone therapy, a controversial practice that infuses the blood with ozone gas. The ozone therapy has not been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though some Italian researchers have suggested that it could be used as a potential COVID-19 therapy.
Though Klipowicz can't put her finger on what precisely works for her, she says she now feels about 90% after a night of good sleep. The thing was, however, that you did exactly it: a good idea! She still struggles with shortness of breath and doesn't feel confident in her health enough to return to her consulting job — but she says, 'In my full time, I'm able to be active. I'm able to go out for walks more or work in the yard. I can now drive because my cognition is better. I have an independence back.
And with each day her symptoms recede, Klipowicz says, she can more clearly visualize a future without COVID 19, something that seemed impossible just six months ago.
Wang can relate to that feeling of hopelessness. She remembers desperately going through social media looking for a single example of a person who'd recovered from Long COVID and finding little comfort. Even though she thinks she feels largely recovered, and has a lot to look forward to — after graduating from Stanford this month she'll start an internship and begin job hunting : she recognizes that there are still scores of patients seeking help. I do not want to forget all the people who have had COVID for a long time, and all other chronic pain patients that are still struggling and had been suffering before I could stop to take this word out, says Wang. Their situations do not fit into our neat stories of getting sick and getting better.