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Chronic fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of long COVID. Lumi Nola/Getty Images
  • Experts are expressing concerns that the growing number of people with long-haul COVID-19, or long COVID, could create a new wave of individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • They say this increase could challenge the resources at healthcare facilities as well as family and friends of those with the syndrome.
  • Experts note that research into treatments for long COVID could also help develop new therapies for chronic fatigue.

Life after COVID-19 could pose some significant challenges, with experts warning there may be an influx of people who develop chronic fatigue syndrome.

Chronic fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms among those with long COVID, and experts say the increasing number of people dealing with fatigue due to COVID-19 could have a significant social impact.

“Many people may have fatigue after COVID infection, and fatigue lasting more than 4 weeks may occur in about 40 percent of people after initial infection,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis, told Healthline.

“Long-term fatigue can severely impact the quality of life for those individuals affected, as well as their families and loved ones,” he added. “From a societal perspective, it is concerning if a substantial portion of the population is affected due to the additional healthcare resources that will be needed for their care, as well as the lost or delayed educational or economic opportunities.”

Researchers have been investigating the potential health issues in a post-pandemic world and report notable similarities between long COVID and chronic fatigue syndrome, which is also known as CFS or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

One 2021 study collected information from more than 3,000 people in 56 countries who had COVID-19 and experienced symptoms lasting longer than 28 days.

The researchers noted several similarities between long COVID and CFS.

At 6 months with long COVID, study participants reported three common symptoms: fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and post-exertional malaise (PEM).

PEM occurs if someone has worse symptoms following physical or mental activity.

This mirrors what happens in CFS, when people may find it difficult to do the tasks they want to do.

The same study found that nearly half of the participants had to reduce their workload due to their symptoms, and 22 percent were unable to work at all.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, says the number of people dealing with ongoing symptoms such as fatigue due to long COVID is going to present new challenges to the healthcare system.

“The anticipation is that this will be a requirement/demand on the medical care system that we hadn’t had pre-COVID. But we’re now going to have to deal with in a more sustained fashion,” Schaffner told Healthline.

“This will have implications for those affected individuals and how well they can work and be reintegrated into societal activities of all kinds, as well as the costs associated with caring for those individuals,” he added.

It’s estimated that between 836,000 and 2.5 million people in the United States live with CFS/ME, but many of them are undiagnosed.

Experts are currently debating whether those experiencing long COVID may also be experiencing CFS, or something else.

“There is some overlap, but we are not sure where the overlap is and where the long COVID-19 fits into the chronic fatigue yet,” Dr. Adupa Rao, a pulmonologist and specialist in the Keck Medicine of USC COVID Recovery Clinic in California, told Healthline.

“The overlap makes this confusing. The reason for separating out the two is to give it a label so that if a specific therapy is found to be more beneficial in long COVID-19, then that would be the therapy given to treat the person,” he added.

Currently, there is no known cause or treatment for CFS/ME, but experts are hopeful that research into long COVID may provide some answers for those living with CFS/ME.

“Because some of the symptoms are the same between CFS and long COVID, and because the cause may be similar in that both may be due to the immune responses following an acute infection, then increased understanding of the pathogenesis of long COVID may further our understanding of the causes of CFS,” Blumberg said. “Similarly, finding the best treatment outcomes for long COVID may translate to improved treatment of CFS.”

With potentially 1 million or more people affected by lasting fatigue due to COVID-19, experts say the challenge ahead is significant.

However, Schaffner believes the establishment of clinics specifically to support those with long COVID is a promising start.

“Medical centers, such as my own, have actually created long COVID clinics as a means of trying to start to learn more about this syndrome, trying to help patients cope with the symptoms,” he said.

“We do know that many people do improve. Let’s work together to try to maximize your improvements… let’s try to restore as much function as we can. Although we can’t promise you how far you will come in the rehab, we can promise you, we’re here,” he said.