COVID-19 'long haulers' experience symptoms months after beating virus

Some lucky people get COVID-19 and beat it within a week or two. But for others, the symptoms are sticking around for much longer than that.

These people are called COVID-19 “long haulers.” Northwestern Medicine is trying to learn more and get answers for those impacted.

Maria Zivoli from West Chester is an Illinoisan, a newlywed and a COVID-19 long hauler, which is a term given to coronavirus survivors with long-lasting symptoms. But she's found hope in a clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“I have my legs propped up right now, because they're throbbing,” said Zivoli.

In June, Zivoli and her now husband rescheduled their wedding because of the coronavirus. Instead, they went to Arizona and came back with the virus.

Months later, still, some of her symptoms have not gone away.

“Leg pains, I always feel like I have the flu or like some type of a chill,” Zivoli.

Dr. Igor Koralnik, chief of neuro-infectious diseases at Northwestern Medicine, oversees a neuro COVID-19 clinic where he monitors long haulers, like Zivoli. He says they are usually between 20 to 60 years old, previously healthy and were not hospitalized with COVID-19.

“There's a large category of COVID-19 long haulers who test negative for the nasal swab, because they were not shedding the virus at the time,” the doctor said.

He says their main symptoms include muscle pain, headaches, dizziness, brain fog, and altered smell and taste.

“What we've seen so far is that there's a majority of women,” said Dr. Koralnik.

So why do some people have long-lasting symptoms?

“It's most likely a post infectious auto-immune problem that occurs after the virus is gone, but the virus has, in a sense, confused the immune system to think that some normal component of the brain and the nerves may be foreign or abnormal, leading to inflammation in these areas,” the doctor said.

Dr. Koralnik says it is something they are trying to resolve. For now, he is treating patients’ symptoms. He says the clinic is in high demand and it is adding more staff so they can see more patients.