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Long COVID, what is it, how to prevent it, and how to treat it?

Health complications caused by COVID-19 don't end for many people with the moment they test negative again, but they are affected even months later. This is called long COVID. For the full recovery, changes in the lifestyle, and sometimes rehabilitation treatment is needed.

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), long COVID is diagnosed when after the three months of catching the coronavirus, the symptoms persist, or after the acute faze of the illness, new symptoms appear that can't be explained by an alternative diagnosis.

Symptoms vary. “Almost daily, we have a patient, who complains about a chest pain, arrhythmia, tiredness, headache or cough lasting for months,” lists dr Arvo Lätt the most common health complications related to COVID-19 recovery.

Why long COVID develops, is not fully clear yet, but among the possible reasons are chronic inflammation, the persistency of the virus in the body, and unusual behaviour of the immune system.

By international studies, about 10% of the patients face long COVID. It's worrisome, that additional to those who needed hospitalization, long COVID might appear in people, who had a milder version of the illness.

Vaccination is the best protection against long COVID

The latest research by the Estonian Health Insurance Board stated, that the best protection against long COVID is vaccination. From The latest data, by the Estonian Health Insurance Fund, has shown that 98.5% of people with long COVID were not vaccinated. Clearly, non-vaccinated people have more severe cases of long COVID, and their complications last longer, said family physician Piret Rospu.

Piret Rospu

“Most often, long COVID affects elderly, people with chronic illnesses and people, who had more symptoms or needed hospitalization,” Rospu explained.

Although vaccination doesn't guarantee not getting long COVID, then mostly vaccinated people have mild symptoms and their recovery is quicker.

“It's essential for risk groups to get vaccinated, because COVID-19 is still a severe illness with an unexpected course, and we don't know its long-term effects on our health,” said Rospu.

COVID-19 affects the mortality rates among elderly even a year after the recovery

Falling ill, although recovering from it, may exacerbate chronic illnesses. A major study, conducted by the University of Tartu, showed that COVID-19 recovery affects the mortality rates among elderly even a year later. Among over 60s, the mortality was twice as high as among the same age group, who hadn't had COVID-19.

"It is clear that the coronavirus doesn't increase mortality rates shortly after falling ill, but it's remarkably higher within the following 12 months," said one of the authors of the study, Ruth Kalda.

Ruth Kalda

The study proved that COVID-19 infection plays a huge role in what happens after falling ill. As said by Ruth Kalda, COVID-19 is like an accelerator for other illnesses. The main causes of death among elderly were heart diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and tumours.

What to do with long COVID that persists?

Because post-COVID health complications are common in Estonia, a guidance for patients was created as a collaboration of the Estonian Health Insurance Board, and the Estonian Family Physicians Association.

Most common symptoms of long COVID are a chronic tiredness, long-term coughing, breathing difficulties, chest pain, heart palpitations, increased anxiety and depression.

“In the guidance, we've brought out the most common symptoms, that can be easily reduced at home. At most times, a changes in lifestyle, also a rehabilitation treatment will be efficient with long COVID,” said Rospu.

Also, corona vaccine might ease the symptoms. By the latest study conducted in Switzerland, a third of patients who were not vaccinated before, noticed an eased long COVID after they got vaccinated. In some cases, symptoms disappeared completely.

How can patients help themselves?

If you suffer from:

  • The loss of sense and smell: use strong fragrances to restore the sense of smell, like rose, eucalypt, lemon, peppermint, cinnamon, coffee, lavender, onion, garlic, vinegar, etc. Choose four of them, and sniff them for 20 seconds, then take a break for 30 seconds, and then again. Do it twice or three times per day, for example before breakfast and going to bed.
  • Tiredness: think about your daily activities. Most important things do first, not rushing, not exhausting yourself. Mix up physical and mental activities, activities where you have to sit or move around. For example, break up working behind the screen by hanging out your laundry. Take breaks before you're completely tired.
  • Shortness of breath: use body positions that ease this feeling, do breathing exercises and rehabilitation treatment.

If you have complications not listed in the guidance, please contact your doctor.

Everything you should know about the COVID-19 vaccination

Vaccination is free of charge for all people living in Estonia, even without the national health insurance.
  • Vaccination is voluntary.
  • Vaccination is open to all people who are at least 5 years old.
  • Compared to COVID-19 illness, vaccination is safe, and generally, the side effects pass quickly.
  • Booster doses are available only for adults, and the time for a booster jab is 2 months after finishing the vaccination course with the Janssen vaccine, and 3 months after finishing the vaccination course with AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
  • Booster doses for people, who are recovered from COVID-19 are recommended 6 months after their recovery or their last vaccination.
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