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UW Health expert offers insight on COVID-19 ‘long haulers’

MADISON (WKOW) -- For some, a COVID-19 infection results in persistent symptoms months after recovery. Now, UW Health is giving more insight into the condition informally known as being a COVID-19 "long hauler."

Dr. Aurora Pop-Vicas is an infectious disease specialist focusing on post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, the technical name for the condition.

She said patients who experience long-lasting symptoms can be split into two groups: those who were hospitalized during their initial illness and those who weren't.

"The patients who were ill with severe disease and were hospitalized and maybe were on prolonged life support for weeks to months are going to have a fairly high risk of residual symptoms after hospital discharge," she said.

She said a large-scale studies from other countries have found nearly 75% of this group reported at least one persistent symptom six months after leaving the hospital.

The more interesting group, however, contains the patients who initially only had mild COVID-19 cases but are still struggling with symptoms.

"Instead of recovering quickly, like most patients, in up to two weeks, they went on to have persistent symptoms," she said.

Pop-Vicas said data shows about 10% of this group report long-term symptoms.

What symptoms are common?

Pop-Vicas said the most typical "long hauler" symptoms are fatigue and muscle weakness. She said other symptoms, like shortness of breath, chest pain, joint pain and difficulty sleeping, are also common.

Some patients also report experiencing increased depression or anxiety.

What causes the condition?

Pop-Vicas said doctors and scientists don't know enough yet to find a definitive cause for persisting symptoms.

She said some theories include persistent inflammation or an over-active immune system.

She said there also isn't a clear treatment because doctors don't know what is causing the phenomenon.

"Until we understand, biologically, the explanation for the syndrome, we don't have specific post-COVID syndrome pharmacological treatment," she said.

Studies on other respiratory diseases have shown gradual improvement in symptoms, Pop-Vicas said.

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