Long COVID: What you need to know about Post Covid Condition

Image of Manali Mukherjee in there lab smiling for a photo

Manali Mukherjee, an assistant professor of respirology, experienced Post COVID-19 Condition firsthand. She says the condition, also known as long COVID, can last months and affect anyone who has been infected with COVID-19. (St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton photo)

It’s been more than three years since researcher Manali Mukherjee was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“For 18 months I would feel like I had 30 per cent of my normal energy,” recalls Mukherjee, an assistant professor of Respirology in the Faculty of Health Sciences. “And sometimes, on a good day, it would be closer to 50 per cent.”

Even now, her energy levels haven’t returned to what they once were. Still, Mukherjee considers herself lucky.

“There are people I know who have been diagnosed with a disease after COVID. In my ongoing study, I’ve seen people contract Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease, or even lupus,” says Mukherjee, who studies Post COVID-19 Condition (PCC), more commonly known as Long COVID.

“These are diseases that they never had before COVID.”

The long-term effects of COVID-19 are experienced by one in nine (11 per cent) Canadian adults who contract the disease, according to data released by Statistics Canada. The federal organization also found that seven in 10 Canadians experience symptoms associated with long COVID on a daily or near daily basis.

Mukherjee is a member of the Long COVID Web, a team that is working towards the vision of a Canada without PCC. She previously led a study that found most people recovered from COVID-19 within 12 months. However, she emphasized several people do not recover and remain symptomatic even at 12 months and beyond.

She is currently finishing a trial involving those who have been diagnosed with PCC and continue to experience symptoms. Her team is working towards identifying biomarkers (blood tests) that could predict which patients are at risk of developing severe long COVID symptoms and autoimmune diseases.

What it is

PCC, or long COVID, can affect anyone infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to the World Health Organization, PCC is characterized “as the continuation or development of new symptoms three months after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection, with these symptoms lasting for at least two months with no other explanation.”

Long COVID isn’t a condition that is restricted to people who experienced severe cases of the disease. Mukherjee says somebody who experienced a very mild acute phase of COVID-19 or who was asymptomatic could still feel the long-term effect of the disease.

Symptoms can vary, with more than 200 having been reported. Mukherjee calls this a constellation of symptoms, with the most common being shortness of breath and brain fog, which can impact memory, concentration, and focus.

“The third most common symptom involves joint pains, aches, fatigue, and lethargy. Those things also affect your general health and your quality of life,” says Mukherjee. “Some people have also reported conjunctivitis and gastrointestinal problems.”

Symptoms can last for several months, but in most cases, people will recover.

Treating and managing PCC

With the list of symptoms in the hundreds, there is currently no one-size-fits-all treatment for PCC.

“There are different phenotypes of long COVID. Somebody may have more respiratory issues; somebody may have more inflammatory immune problems; somebody may have more neurocognitive head related issues,” Mukherjee says.

Mukherjee says treatment is more tuned towards symptom management. For this reason, it is important to consult a physician so they can put you in touch with the right specialist.

“If symptoms persist for six months and longer that’s a good time to go and see your doctor. If the symptoms are a little bit more severe and affecting your ability to have a productive day, then I think you should go in earlier,” she says.

Vaccinations, masking, and good hand hygiene can also help by limiting the opportunities for COVID infection.

PCC’s impact on mental health

The effects of Post COVID-19 Condition can weigh heavy on a person’s mental health.

Mukherjee, who is trained in immunology, found herself buried under the pressures of anxiety during her bought with PCC.

“I was educated in this matter and yet I was anxious. The anxiety made the problem so much worse,” she says.

She found help in knowing she wasn’t alone in dealing with PCC.

“I had to remind myself that it isn’t just me. So many people are going through this. That’s when social media, I think, helps so much because everybody’s vocal about what they’re going through.”

Mukherjee says it is important for those who haven’t experienced long COVID to show compassion and understanding.

“There are people who are suffering,” she says. “For those who think they have long COVID or are having consistent symptoms, don’t get too anxious. Most people do recover. Be mindful about your daily lifestyle and practices. Listen to your body and give it a break when it needs it.”

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