“I had no energy to even leave the bed,” says27-year-old Nishant Mhatre, “After I recovered from COVID-19, I couldn’t do anything for a few days. Walking from the bed to the washroom seemed like a task because it made me so tired.”
Nishant was an otherwise healthy individual before he contracted the virus around the beginning of March 2021. But after recovering from the illness, he reported fatigue for more than a week. When he complained about this to his general physician, he was told that this may be one of the post-COVID symptoms and termed it post-COVID fatigue.
What are post-COVID symptoms?
It has been noticed that a lot of COVID-19 patients, especially those who suffered severe infection, are continuing to experience symptoms of the viral infection for weeks, sometimes months, even after testing negative. These include breathlessness, persistent cough, joint pain, and loss of smell and taste. Some patients may also report a lingering ‘brain fog’, a neurological symptom that causes confusion, poor concentration and memory loss, shares Neha Kamat, a behavioural psychologist and certified nutritionist, who has experienced it first-hand.
One of the most common long-term symptoms, however, is excessive fatigue. “Post-COVID fatigue is different from the usual tiredness. In this case, people are drained of energy, physical and mental, even after plenty of rest and can’t resume their day-to-day activities,” explains Dr Sandeep Gore, director, emergency medicine, Fortis Hospital, Mulund, Mumbai.“We’ve noticed that post-COVID fatigue generally lasts for three to four weeks and is mostly noticed among those who were severely infected. However, this doesn’t mean it won’t affect those with mild infection,” he adds, while stating that this extreme tiredness may not be permanent.
Head of clinical care at World Health Organization, Dr Janet Diaz compares the post-COVID symptoms noticed among severely ill patients with post-intensive care syndrome, where patients who have spent time in intensive care may show symptoms up to six months, or even one year after that hospitalisation.
But what about COVID-19 patients who only had mild symptoms? “For patients who had a mild attack, we really don't have enough information to say how long those symptoms may persist after the acute illness.”
What are the causes of post-COVID symptoms?
While the exact reason behind this condition hasn’t been identified yet, Dr Bipin Jibhkate, consultant, critical care medicine and ICU director at Wockhardt Hospital, Mira Road, Mumbai, points out, “Post-COVID symptoms, especially excessive fatigue, may be triggered bythe immune system’s response to the initial infection. While battling the virus,the immune system releases increased levels of cytokines, a chemical that helps fight off an infection. Ideally, the system needs to go back to normal after the fight is over, but if it fails to do so and continues to release cytokines in high amounts even though no pathogen is present, it may start damaging healthy cells in our body. This can cause inflammation, pain and tiredness.”
“The immune system activation doesn’t alone produce post-COVID symptoms,” informs Kamat, “COVID-19 has been identified as a neuro-invasive virus. In this case, the virus invades the brain tissue and hinders the ability of neurons (nerve cells that transmit messages from the brain to other parts of the body) to communicate with each other. When the chemical linkage between neurons breaks, the messages from your brain to other parts of the body won’t flow smoothly and as a result, a person experiences brain fog and other neurologic symptoms such as loss of smell or taste and numbness.”Other common causes of brain fog include inadequate sleep, chronic stress, poor diet and being on steroids.
How to deal with post-COVID symptoms?
So how do you beat this overwhelming tiredness and brain fog? Sadly, there isn’t any specific medication or speedy treatment yet for post-COVID symptoms. Complete rest – mental as well as physical – has proven the most effective, the medical experts tell us. Dr Gore and Dr Jibhkate also share a bunch of self-help tips to ease the symptoms and aid recovery:
- Eat nutritious, protein-rich meals from time to time.
- Drink three to four litres of water a day to ensure your body is hydrated, especially in the summer.
- Get a good night’s sleep – at least 6-7 hours – and fix a sleep and wakeup time.
- Avoid sleeping for several hours at a stretch during the day, instead take small, frequent naps.
- Limit your screen time as it may cause physical strain to your eyes and body.
- Avoid watching the news, it may increase stress.
- Start with a small amount of exercise, not too strenuous, and build it up gradually.
- Practice a hobby such as reading or painting or engage in chores around the house to keep your mind occupied but not for a long period.
- Conserve your energy – avoid stressing yourself out with unnecessary tasks, plan activities beforehand and ask for help when needed (for instance: order online instead of stepping out).
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol.
They also stress on the importance of listening to your body and mind, and looking out for signs and symptoms that may worsen your situation. Don’t wait to see if you feel better. “If you find yourself sleeping all day, unable to eat or do anything, or notice any other post-COVID symptoms like blood clotting, kidney problems, memory loss and muscle or joint pain, then seek medical help immediately,” concludes Dr Gore.