Defining Long COVID: Why Is It Important and What Should I Know?

How to Define Long COVID

Over half of those who struggle with COVID-19 are expected to experience prolonged symptoms of some kind. These symptoms are diverse in nature and duration and range from mild to severe. In the early days of the pandemic, one of the larger challenges for patients experiencing these symptoms, and for their care providers, was defining long COVID as a standardized disease separate and apart from acute and contagious COVID-19 infection. 

As more and more patients suffer from long-term COVID-related complications, it’s become increasingly important to define the scope of long COVID for effective diagnosis and management of this pervasive disease.

How Does the Medical Community Define Long COVID?

Defining Long COVID

Defining Long COVID and Why It’s Important
(This image is from Pixabay.)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a document containing an official global definition for what many have variously called “long COVID,” “post-COVID syndrome,” and “long-hauler syndrome.” It defines that the disease as occurring “in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, usually three months from the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.” 

The definition was developed for use in community and healthcare settings to “optimize recognition and care of people experiencing post-COVID condition,” and is likely to change as new evidence comes to light and understanding of COVID-19 and its consequences evolves.” It has helped to provide real-time, actionable care protocol and diagnosis benchmarks to not only effectively treat patients but also to compile an evergrowing body of research regarding the disease. 

Defining Long COVID from Person to Person

Although the WHO has helped to standardize the formal clinical definition of long COVID, the reality is that the disease may look very different from patient to patient. Symptoms of long COVID vary greatly in scope and duration and may often include: 

  • Respiratory issues and shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or tired Feeling 
  • Symptoms that worsen after physical or mental strain
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating ( “brain fog”)
  • Persistent cough
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Headache and migraine
  • Accelerated or pounding heartbeat 
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Pins-and-needles feeling
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sleep problems
  • Fever and flu-like symptoms 
  • Dizziness upon standing (lightheadedness)
  • Rash and skin issues
  • Mood changes
  • Change or loss of smell or taste
  • Changes in menstrual cycles

More and more symptoms are emerging as part of the long-COVID diagnosis mosaic.

Why Is Defining Long COVID Important?

Defining long COVID is important for a variety of reasons. Apart from the basic clinical factors of correct diagnosis and disease management, proper definition gives those who are experiencing quality-of-life issues a basis to seek relief, whether it’s disability benefits, time off from work to manage symptoms or other social and occupational accommodations. 

The reality is that many of those who experience post-COVID symptoms have their lives permanently altered, including how they stay active, interact with their loved ones, and even function at work. The quicker we normalize long COVID as a valid disease, for which care and support are very much needed, the sooner we can affect these vulnerable and affected populations.