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Paxlovid has proven to be effective in relieving COVID-19 symptoms. Europa Press/C.Lujan.Pool via Getty Images
  • It’s estimated that as many as 30 percent of people who’ve had COVID-19 may develop long COVID.
  • Experts say the symptoms of long COVID may persist for more than 6 months or even years.
  • Researchers are looking into potential treatments for long COVID.
  • One method could be antiviral medications such as Paxlovid that now treat initial symptoms of the disease.

Long COVID, a post-viral syndrome characterized by fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and malaise, may affect as many as 3 in 10 people who’ve had COVID-19.

Studies suggest that those symptoms can persist 6 months or more following recovery from the initial illness and there’s concern that some long COVID cases could last years or longer.

In the United States where it’s estimated that nearly 60 percent of the population has contracting COVID-19, including three out of four children, this could create significant hardship if effective treatments are not found.

“Therefore, there are at least 44 million people in the United States suffering from long COVID,” Dr. Jaclyn Leong, DO, co-director of the University of California at Irvine Health COVID Recovery Service, told Healthline.

Furthermore, “symptoms of long COVID vary, meaning we see a wide variety of symptoms that make diagnosis and treatment difficult,” Leong said. “We also see this in ranging ages of patients from teens, young adults, and the elderly. For instance, we often see young, healthy patients prior to getting COVID-19 that may have had a mild case of acute COVID-19 or even asymptomatic, that then subsequently suffer from long COVID.”

The effects of long COVID may also extend to the workforce in general.

A recent survey by Unison found that more than two-thirds of healthcare workers with long COVID returned to work before their symptoms had abated. Almost half found that their workplaces were no longer supportive or accommodating of their recoveries.

Because COVID-19 itself is still relatively new, understanding long COVID will take time, but some promising developments are on the horizon.

For instance, the White House has announced a plan to form a government-wide response to study and treat the long-term effects of COVID-19, including mustering the resources of the Department of Health and Human Services and the creation of an interagency research agenda.

“Right now, we do not have a one pill fix for long COVID,” Leong said. “There are new findings of possible pathophysiology of long COVID. However, there are still ongoing clinical trials for treatment.”

One possible treatment is the use of antivirals to treat long COVID.

At least two people with long COVID reported their symptoms clearing following a five-day course of Pfizer’s antiviral drug Paxlovid. The medication has so far proven to be effective in treating symptoms from an initial bout with COVID-19.

However, researchers cautioned that the success of Paxlovid only indicates the necessity of clinical trials to explore the potential effectiveness of the drug for long COVID.

Other therapies may also show promise.

And as frustrating as it may be right now for people with long COVID, patience may be key to better health outcomes.

“We are just at the beginning of what appears will be a long and often challenging journey when it comes to the care of patients with long COVID,” Dr. Walt Hadikin, the director of clinical communications at medical app company Epocrates, told Healthline. “Clinicians will need to be comfortable not having all the answers and be open to the influx of new info, evidence, and guidance over the coming months and years.”

“To prevent COVID survivors from feeling forgotten, I believe that experts ought to convey a balanced message: Though we may be progressing to a new, and less acute, phase of this pandemic which is most welcome and a reason to celebrate, attention now needs to be turned to care for all of those suffering the after-effects of COVID-19,” he added.