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'Can I avoid getting long COVID?' 9 questions you have about long COVID, answered by experts.

We're two and a half years into the pandemic. And with more sub-variants hitting Australia, and the reinfection rate picking up rapidly, our focus has once again shifted to the disease, and the chronic aftermath shrouded in mystery: long COVID.

For some time, long COVID has been portrayed by health officials and the media simply as a 'long flu', but as we start to learn more about the disease and this debilitating condition, we're beginning to see that it's not as rare as we once thought. 

Watch: The signs to use when talking about COVID. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

Studies estimate that between 10 and 20 per cent of Australians infected with COVID-19 will go on to suffer from long COVID - an often life-altering condition that persists for prolonged periods of time following a COVID diagnosis.

In fact, researchers are now saying that the public have not been fully informed about the long-term effects of COVID, with existing sufferers calling for more awareness around the condition.

Here, we look at exactly what you need to know about long COVID - straight from the experts.

1. What is long COVID?

While there is currently no universal definition of what long COVID is, it's basically used as a blanket term to describe people still struggling with symptoms after their initial contraction of COVID-19. And the severity of long COVID ranges. 

As GP Dr Imaan Joshi tells Mamamia, "Most people with mild COVID symptoms usually recover in one to two weeks. But in severe cases, recovery can take six weeks or more, and for some, there may be lasting symptoms with or without damage to the heart, kidneys, lungs and brain."

"This is called 'long COVID', or 'post COVID-19 condition'."

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Dr Joshi adds that someone is usually considered having long COVID if symptoms have persisted for longer than 12 weeks after their initial infection.

2. What are the symptoms of long COVID?

When it comes to the symptoms associated with long COVID - it's not exactly clear cut. The related conditions are extremely diverse and can be different for everyone. 

For example, there are people without any underlying health conditions that have gone on to experience some severe long-term symptoms, including heart issues and problems with memory and concentration.

One of the most common, however, is out-of-the-ordinary, persistent fatigue. 

In addition to fatigue, Dr Joshi said other common symptoms include "excessive shortness of breath and palpitations for the degree of physical activity undertaken. For example, when walking to the kitchen or doing the laundry which would’ve been a non-issue before."

She also said people may experience neurological problems and "issues with memory or concentration and forgetfulness", as well as "unexplained aches and pains unrelated to anything else."

Then there's everything from hair loss and skin rashes to persistent headaches, changes in women's menstrual cycles and increased inflammation.

While there are some hallmark symptoms and conditions, it's important to note that no two people with long COVID are the same, which makes the research and potential treatment much harder to pinpoint. 

The wide spectrum of conditions could also mean a lack of recognition of symptoms, causing some long COVID cases to go undiagnosed.

This also means that doctors heavily rely on their patients' in order to navigate alternative explanations or causes. 

Some long COVID clinics even have a team of specialists in various fields, in order to help analyse different symptoms and propose the best treatment options.

3. How long does it take for the symptoms of long COVID to appear?

"It’s not so much that symptoms of long COVID appear," said Dr Joshi, "But rather that they don’t disappear - i.e. they persist well beyond a timeframe that we know is common for respiratory viruses in an otherwise healthy person, which is around six to eight weeks max."

While it was previously thought that long COVID symptoms last for one to three months after infection, there are millions of first wave long haulers around the world who've experienced this interminable diseases for years - with no 'expiry date' in sight.

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"At this point, persistent symptoms that continue to impact day-to-day functioning would suggest the possibility of long COVID in the absence of any other co-existing illness," said Dr Joshi.

4. What impact does long COVID have on the brain? 

Recent Australian research has pinpointed cognitive impairment, or 'brain fog', as a very real symptom of long COVID, with researchers seeing a wide range of dysfunction in the brain, posing possible long-term neurological problems. 

This 'brain fog' can impact everything from memory to attention and functioning.  

The study, which was run by neurologist Professor Bruce Brew, Head of Peter Duncan Neurosciences Unit at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, looked at 128 patients over 12 months.

Mamamia spoke to Professor Brew about his groundbreaking research, and how many people with long COVID are at risk of severe cognitive issues.

He said, "We have shown that it happens in about 20 per cent of people with long COVID, that it impacts on their usual activities including work, that it is in general mild and that it persists up until one year," he said. 

"We are analysing data after one year, but [there are] no results yet."

5. Who is most at risk of long COVID?

Studies have found women have a greater risk of long-term symptoms of COVID, with research revealing that about 50 per cent of patients are female. 

Interestingly, this pattern has been seen in other infectious conditions like ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), which shares some similarities to long COVID.

Professor Brew adds that long COVID is appearing "possibly in younger patients and more in females - but no social demographic in our cohort."

6. What kind of treatment options are available? 

While Australians are struggling with long COVID, there's currently no definitive answer on what will or won't work in terms of treatment options. 

As Professor Brew tells Mamamia, while there is currently no cure for long COVID, research is very much ongoing - including trials on treatments already used for other conditions, such as cancer or epilepsy.

"There are no specific treatment options at present so it is more an issue of pacing," Professor Brew said. "Trials are underway, though it will be some months at the very earliest before anything definitive."

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7. Is the cognitive damage from long COVID reversible? 

Professor Brew's recent research has also found that of the long COVID patients studied (128 patients over 12 months), the cognitive impact of long COVID can last for longer than a year. 

For some patients, the damage may be irreversible. 

"At this stage it is not clear whether the condition is wholly or partly reversible," said Professor Brew.

"There are some patients who have returned to normal but equally there are some who have deteriorated."

8. How can you avoid long COVID?

"We know unlike many other childhood viruses, such as chickenpox and measles, COVID isn’t a 'one-and-done' virus," said Dr Joshi.

"It does not confer lifelong immunity, or for very long at all - you can be reinfected within weeks of getting COVID and each reinfection gives you a risk of long COVID each time."

To avoid long COVID, our experts say the answer is simple: don't get COVID. 

This means getting vaccinated, wearing masks, social distancing and overall, understanding the very real life-altering impact this disease can have.

9. What are the health risks of getting COVID a second or third time?

As the new sub-variants lead to a higher number of Australians becoming reinfected, a recent study has suggested that the risk of developing long COVID may actually increase with each individual reinfection.

The study outlines that getting infected twice or more "contributes to additional risks of all-cause mortality, hospitalisation and adverse health outcomes", and can be increasingly worse for those who suffer from diabetes, fatigue and mental health disorders.

The research compared those infected only once with individuals who caught the coronavirus a second time, finding that the latter were two and a half times more likely to develop heart or lung disease and blood clotting issues.

While for some people reinfection won't have any major health outcomes, for many others it can result in long-term health problems that could potentially be life-altering.

Have you struggled with long COVID? What's been your experience? Share with us in the comment section below.

Feature Image: Getty

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