Share on Pinterest
Post COVID-19 condition is now the formal definition of long COVID, according to the World Health Organization. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • The WHO has released a document outlining a formal definition for long COVID, which it now calls “post COVID-19 condition.”
  • Long COVID can have a variety of symptoms and has been linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.
  • The best way to reduce your risk for long COVID is taking steps to avoid contracting the coronavirus.
  • Vaccination and mitigation measures such as masking and physical or social distancing are an important part of lowering your risk of contracting the virus.

On Oct. 6, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the first official definition of what constitutes long COVID.

The medical community has been aware that while most people recover from COVID-19 within a matter of weeks, some will experience lingering symptoms for 4 or more weeks after developing COVID-19.

Until now, there has not been a formal definition for this condition.

Referring to it as “post COVID-19 condition,” the document says that long COVID “occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, usually 3 months from the onset of COVID-19, with symptoms that last for at least 2 months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.”

The definition further states that common symptoms may include fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and several others that can impact daily functioning.

These symptoms may be new onset after initial recovery from the disease or a continuation of the initial illness.

They may also change or relapse over time.

The document states that a separate definition may be needed for children.

How can long COVID affect you?

Inimary Toby, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Dallas and a member of the American Physiological Society, said long COVID could affect people in several ways.

People may experience continuous symptoms, or it may follow a course of remission and relapse, she said.

Symptoms can vary broadly but can include cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

Some of the well-described complications of long COVID include stroke or heart attack.

She further explained that during acute illness, there tend to be three clusters of symptoms:

  1. Respiratory symptoms, including cough, phlegm, and shortness of breath
  2. Musculoskeletal symptoms, including muscle and joint pain, headache, and fatigue
  3. Enteric symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea

Joseph A. Roche, BPT, Dip. Rehab. PT, PhD, associate professor in the Physical Therapy Program at Wayne State University and member of the American Physiological Society who has performed research into the effects of long COVID, said the case had been made that long COVID may resemble a condition known as “myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS),” which can affect some individuals after other viral illnesses. 

“What makes post COVID-19 condition more concerning than ME/CFS,” said Roche, “is that there is not just physical and mental fatigue, but also persistent and recurrent problems that affect the lungs, heart, blood vessels, and other organs and tissues.” 

How long will it last?

Toby said that about 10 to 20 percent of people will experience long COVID symptoms for weeks or even months.

Roche added, however, that we really can’t predict for sure right now exactly how long it might last.

He said data he and the team have gathered revealed that people with SARS had lingering symptoms even at a 4-year follow-up.

“This is indeed disturbing,” said Roche. “I have been in touch with patients who had COVID-19 during the first waves of infections and have still not recovered completely.

“While I am hopeful that patients with post COVID-19 condition will improve over time, my genuine concern is that some patients may never recover completely.”

How to prevent long COVID

The best way to avoid long COVID is prevention.

Roche said this begins with education, which highlights just how severe the condition is.

Vaccination is important as well.

“Vaccination against COVID-19 reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection and therefore reduces the overall risk of people in the general population developing post COVID-19 condition,” Roche said.

Mitigation measures like masking, physical or social distancing, contact tracing, self-isolation when sick and genomic surveillance of the virus remain essential as well, according to Roche, since we do not know what the risk is for developing long COVID after a breakthrough case.

These measures are especially important for children under 11 years old who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated and can develop long COVID symptoms.