Doctors stumped by COVID 'long haulers' with symptoms long after illness

People test negative but still have symptoms
Posted at 5:36 PM, Dec 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-24 20:40:23-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- For some people who catch the coronavirus, their symptoms can last for months. Researchers are calling these patients who now test negative but still experience symptoms "long haulers." Doctors are calling the long hauler problem a big mystery.

It's a new phenomenon of a new virus, stumping even the brightest researchers and doctors.

"I have to tell him, I don't know," Dr. Zehui Tan with Sharp Rees Stealy Rancho Bernardo said.

Dr. Tan is treating an otherwise very healthy 24-year-old man who tested positive for COVID-19 in September. She says after he quarantined for 14 days, most of his symptoms went away. He retook the test, and it came back negative. But the good news was short-lived. A month later, he ended up in the ER once again.

"His blood test is normal, chest is fine, but they found an abnormality in the EKG -- an inflammation of the heart. It can be a complication after COVID," Dr. Tan said.

Researchers believe about 10% of COVID-19 patients see a relapse in symptoms. These "long haulers" now test negative for COVID but still experience symptoms that include coughing, fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, and brain fog.

"Almost three months after the COVID infection, he's still not feeling right," Dr. Tan said.

Researchers say there does not seem to be a consistent reason or type of patient who becomes long-haulers.

"We see people die long from COVID, and I have a 92-year-old just fully recovered, so you just never know what's going to happen in your body once you get this COVID," Dr. Tan said.

So it could be a long road ahead until her patient feels like himself again.

"We don't know," Dr. Tan said. "The only thing we can give is offer lots of support, treat them symptomatically, and then just watch and wait."

Experts say patients who had bad respiratory issues may develop permanent lung damage. However, those who lost their sense of taste and smell will likely get those senses back.