- There is currently no cure for long COVID.
- The burden of long COVID is higher than most people are willing to admit.
- Despite the hype, a healthy lifestyle alone is often not enough to relieve patients' suffering.
- When evaluating a potential intervention, it's important to have reasonable expectations and be fully informed of the risks.
Seemingly every week, news reports include statements like “Long COVID…could be slashed in half if people ate healthy and exercised” or “for most mild infections, long COVID symptoms clear after a year.” There are undoubtedly major issues with coming to these conclusions based on the methodology of the studies. For instance, the former looked at health records to determine symptom rates; any individual who works clinically with the population knows that at a certain point, patients will stop reporting or taper off in their medical care due to a gradual coming-to-terms with the fact that medicine cannot at present cure them.
On paper, of course, the statement that most long COVID symptoms improve within a year is true. Most acute infections recover within several weeks. What does this mean, however, for those patients who are past the year mark and continue to have significant symptom burden?
Papers showing that healthy lifestyles might decrease the risk for long-term symptoms also offer little insight. We know that a healthy lifestyle decreases the risk for most illnesses, so why would long COVID be any different? It's easy to conflate factors that decrease the risk of developing an illness with factors that may directly treat an illness when it emerges, so it’s a hop, a skip, and a jump from this conclusion to individuals prescribing a “healthy lifestyle” to directly treat long COVID. This often feels like a slap in the face to those individuals continuing to struggle to manage the impact these symptoms have on their lives.
Coping with long COVID
For nearly three years of ongoing illness, long COVID patients have tried nearly everything in their desperation to have their healthy lives back. Any diet you can imagine has been suggested as a panacea, plus psychotherapies, cryotherapies, oxygen therapies, plasma filtration therapies—an exhausting list of possibilities, each starting with hope and ending with either some slight benefit, confusion and despair, or, worse, some harm caused. None are a magic bullet, but they all come with a potential for lessening the intensity of the unknown, which is one of the hardest parts of experiencing long COVID illness.
The roller-coaster ride that is the illness experience brings a surprise around every corner just as an individual starts to feel they are finally understanding their body. Each minuscule change in symptoms is clung to out of desperation for control—because if you don’t have control, what do you have? When experiencing a good day, can you attribute it to the lunch you ate yesterday? Or the rest you built into your routine? Or maybe it’s chance alone?
Individuals with long COVID are vulnerable not just to their experience being minimized by headlines parading oversimplified and overreaching conclusions. The desperation for improvement also leaves them vulnerable to individuals marketing deceptive interventions under the guise of treatment. The desperation can skew one’s critical thinking skills, so one might see potential in approaches that do not even have a solid theoretical foundation.
To best assess the utility of potential interventions, long COVID patients may benefit from considering the following:
- Be wary of those who promise results. Even the best treatments are never 100 percent. Ask for a reasonable expectation of what you might be able to see change, as well as the chances you will experience improvement and what the next steps would be if you get worse or do not improve.
- Ensure that you are fully informed of the risks, both direct and indirect. These risks should be clear and presented in a straightforward manner.
- Consider how sustainable the intervention is long-term. Some interventions may provide temporary benefits but then require ongoing maintenance therapy that may not be sustainable over the long term due to factors such as the method of delivery, time for treatment, and financial burden.
As things currently stand, there is no cure for long COVID. There are, however, treatments that may minimize symptom burden and improve quality of life. These should be approached with caution and critical thinking, recognizing the biases pulling toward the need for recovery and control over illness and balancing that with the potential risks of worsening one’s overall condition, significant time commitment, and financial burden.