As doctors struggled through several surges of COVID-19 infections, most of what we learned was acquired through real-life experience. While many treatment options were promoted, most flat-out failed to be real therapeutics at all. Now that we have a safe and effective vaccine, we can prevent many infections from this virus. However, we are still left to manage the many post-COVID symptoms our patients continue to suffer with.
Symptoms following infection can last for months and range widely from “brain fog,” fatigue, dyspnea, chest pain, generalized weakness, depression, and a host of others. Patients may experience one or all of these symptoms, and there is currently no good way to predict who will go on to become a COVID “long hauler”.
Following the example of being educated by COVID as it happened, the same is true for managing post-COVID symptoms. The medical community still has a poor understanding of why some people develop it and there are few evidence-based studies to support any treatment modalities.
which they define as “new, recurring, or ongoing symptoms more than 4 weeks after infection, sometimes after initial symptom recovery.” It is important to note that these symptoms can occur in any degree of sickness during the acute infection, including in those who were asymptomatic. Even the actual name of this post-COVID syndrome is still being developed, with several other names being used for it as well.
While the guidelines are quite extensive, the actual clinical recommendations are still vague. For example, it is advised to let the patient know that post-COVID symptoms are still not well understood. While it is important to be transparent with patients, this does little to reassure them. Patients look to doctors, especially their primary care physicians, to guide them on the best treatment paths. Yet, we currently have none for post-COVID syndrome.
It is also advised to treat the patients’ symptoms and help improve functioning. For many diseases, doctors like to get to the root cause of the problem. Treating a symptom often masks an underlying condition. It may make the patient feel better and improve what they are capable of doing, which is important, but it also fails to unmask the real problem. It is also important to note that symptoms can be out of proportion to clinical findings and should not be dismissed: we just don’t have the answers yet.
One helpful recommendation is having a patient keep a diary of their symptoms. This will help both the patient and doctor learn what may be triggering factors. If it is, for example, exertion that induces breathlessness, perhaps the patient can gradually increase their level of activity to minimize symptoms. Additionally, a “comprehensive rehabilitation program” is also advised and this can greatly assist addressing all the issues a patient is experiencing, physically and medically.
It is also advised that management of underlying medical conditions be optimized. While this is very important, it is not something specific to post-COVID syndrome: All patients should have their underlying medical conditions well controlled. It might be that the patient is paying more attention to their overall health, which is a good thing. However, this does not necessarily reduce the current symptoms a patient is experiencing.
The CDC makes a good attempt to offer guidance in the frustrating management of post-COVID syndrome. However, their clinical guidelines fail to offer specific management tools specific to treating post-COVID patients. The recommendations offered are more helpful to health in general. The fact that more specific recommendations are lacking is simply caused by the lack of knowledge of this condition at present. As more research is conducted and more knowledge obtained, new guidelines should become more detailed.
Dr. Girgis practices family medicine in South River, N.J., and is a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J. You can contact her at [email protected].