The good news: Roughly 80 percent of people who contract COVID-19 recover within two weeks. But new research suggests that even after patients are out of the woods, symptoms can linger. In an Italian study published in JAMA , 87 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 were still struggling with cough, fever and fatigue two months after discharge. Doctors have started calling these patients COVID long-haulers.
“Anyone who has had COVID-19 may develop a prolonged illness, regardless of whether their initial course was mild or severe or whether they were hospitalized or not,” says Jeffrey Siegelman, M.D., a professor of emergency medicine at Atlanta’s Emory University, who has personally experienced lingering COVID-19 symptoms. Now doctors treating the disease have started turning their attention to helping patients rehab from the virus.
“Many of these patients were previously healthy and active,” says Dr. Siegelman, “so the sudden change can lead to depression and anxiety, plus lingering symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, headaches and more.” In conjunction with your doctor’s advice, these at-home strategies will help ward off the worst effects of COVID-19-and speed total recovery.
To ease prolonged breathing challenges
Trouble breathing is a common symptom of COVID-19, and in an Italian study, 43 percent of sufferers were still struggling to breathe deeply 60 days after recovering. “Research shows this post-COVID effect has to do with the diaphragm, our major breathing muscle,” says natural-health expert John Douillard, D.C., director of the LifeSpa Ayurveda Clinic in Colorado. “For most people, the diaphragm is already weak, and respiratory illnesses weaken it further.” But Douillard says a technique called inspiratory muscle training can strengthen the diaphragm. To do: Pinch your nostrils so they’re half-closed. Breathe in deeply and forcefully through your nose, then release your nose and breathe out through your nostrils, keeping your mouth closed the whole time. That’s one breath; Douillard advises doing 30 breaths twice a day. Doing this when you’re healthy will help you respond better to a respiratory illness if you do catch one.
To quell stress
“Long-term illness can bring up concerns about pain and disability,” says developmental psychologist Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. This, coupled with uncertainty and isolation from quarantining, can cause prolonged stress and anxiety. But writing in a journal regularly, a technique Dr. Siegelman uses, can help you process these feelings-and keep stress low even if you’re not sick. In fact, National Institutes of Health researchers found that writing down your experiences with a traumatic event reduces feelings of anxiety and depression by 25 percent. Whitlock suggests journaling every other day. Write whatever you want, or answer these questions: How do I feel? What’s the silver lining?
To improve focus
Some COVID-19 patients experience slower thinking and attention lapses. “With any illness that compromises function in one system, like the respiratory system with COVID-19, your body has to devote all of its energy to healing that system,” notes Whitlock. “That means energy isn’t available to other systems, including the brain. If you’re ill over weeks, it can become taxing to the brain.” But playing brain games can improve focus and memory: In a 2018 study, subjects who used the game platform Lumosity (free on Apple and Android devices) for 15 minutes a day for three weeks saw a 35 percent improvement in memory, attention and problem solving-and Whitlock believes this strategy helps people recovering from COVID-19 too.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.