Doctors estimate that up to 30% of people who contract COVID-19 become what are known as “COVID long haulers,” people who contract the virus and have persistent symptoms months after being sick.
UT Health Austin, which is the clinical practice of Dell Medical School at UT Austin, operates a program that collects long-haul information and attempts to be a resource for primary care physicians and their struggling patients. with a long COVID.
A few weeks ago, a small group of doctors and nurses from the program, known as the Post-COVID-19 programhosted a webinar for people who are part of an online COVID long-haul support group.
They answered a wide range of questions, like how to combat the lingering “brain fog” they have post-COVID.
Dr. Esther Melamed, neurologist and research director for the program, says it’s a common post-COVID symptom that makes it hard to concentrate and impacts retention and memory. She told members of the support group that it’s still kind of a mystery.
“The causes of brain fog are currently not completely well understood,” she said, “but it may be related to ongoing inflammation or autoimmunity, either systemically in the body or in the brain after COVID.”
“We really realized that there was a group of patients who were really in pain and were turning to doctors with no clear answers.”
Dr. Michael Brode, assistant professor at Dell Medical School
But Melamed told members of the support group there were things that might help, like working out a bit more, especially cardio. Better sleep and healthier eating are also things that help your brain.
“In terms of specific exercises for the brain, it’s important to keep the brain challenged and to keep learning,” Melamed said. “Learning new skills can really help, like learning an instrument.”
Melamed told group members that learning a new language and completing Sudoku puzzles could also improve brain function.
Members also asked about constant fatigue and expressed fears about long-term lung and heart damage and blood clotting.
Dr. Michael Brode, assistant professor of medicine and population health at Dell Medical School, said there’s still a lot we don’t know about the long COVID, including how many people get COVID. are likely to have symptoms months later.
“It’s a bit difficult,” he said. “Each study does not reach consensus on how we track symptoms or report them. But we think about 10-30% of people at six months will have persistent problems.
That’s a lot of people, given the nearly 100,000 people who have fallen ill with COVID in Austin alone. Brode said he and the team at Dell Med aim to help two groups of people, the first being primary care physicians.
“We’re going to help educate them on how to care for these patients in the primary care setting because that’s where they’re seen,” Brode said. “And then we really realized that there was a group of patients who were really in pain and were turning away from doctors with no clear answers.”
He said that’s why the team speaks directly to people with post-COVID symptoms in settings such as webinars.
“Our program really wants to be a kind of clearinghouse for what’s good information and what’s known and what’s unknown,” Brode said.
There’s still a lot of frustration among COVID long-haulers, he said, and many of them are desperate for answers. One cause for frustration is that most tests aren’t helpful.
Brode said many of these people go through a litany of exploratory tests to figure out what’s going on and all tests come back normal. But patients say they know something is wrong.
“The way I describe it is that the disease is almost like the wiring in the kitchen is faulty and sparking, but the tests we have are a fire alarm,” he said. “And so, if the wiring catches fire, the alarm will catch it.”
But, unfortunately, this metaphorical fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough to detect these patients’ problems, Brode said.
He said there was still so much to learn and improve in treating people with long COVID. But he said it was helpful simply to assure patients who feel alone in their illness – and the doctors treating them – that the long COVID is real and that there are ways to manage the symptoms until until a cure is found.
“A lot of what I provide is reassuring,” Brode said.
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