People are often surprised at how tired they are during a COVID infection.
Fatigue is more than being exhausted or sleepy. It’s an excessive fatigue that persists despite rest or good sleep. This is likely the result of our body’s strong immune response to the virus.
But in some people, the fatigue lingers on even when the infection is gone. It can be debilitating and frustrating. Simply resting more makes no difference.
Here’s what we know about post-COVID fatigue and what can help.
Tired or tired? What is the difference?
The term fatigue can mean different things to different people. Some people say their muscles are easily weakened. Walking to the mailbox feels like running a marathon. Others describe general exhaustion whether they are moving or not. people can experience physical, mental or emotional fatigue, or any combination thereof.
The difference between fatigue and exhaustion is that fatigue can get better with enough rest, while fatigue persists even if someone sleeps and rests more than ever.
Read more: Still coughing after COVID? Here’s why it happens and what to do about it
How big is a problem?
Because there is no agreed definition of post-COVID fatigue, it is impossible to give exact figures on how many people suffer from it.
Estimates vary widely around the world. A review of 21 studies found that 13-33% of people were fatigued 16-20 weeks after their symptoms started. This is a worrying and widespread problem.
When should I see my GP?
There are many potential causes of fatigue. Even before the pandemic, fatigue was one of the most common reasons to see a GP.
More serious causes can be ruled out when your GP asks about your symptoms and examines you. Sometimes your GP will investigate further, perhaps ordering blood tests.
Symptoms that should be of particular concern include fevers, unexplained weight loss, unusual bleeding or bruising, pain (anywhere) that wakes you from sleep, or profuse night sweats.
If your fatigue is getting worse instead of better, or if you can’t take care of yourself properly, you really should see a doctor.
Is it like a long COVID?
At the start of the pandemic, we realized that some patients had a debilitating cluster of symptoms that dragged on for months, what we now call long COVID.
Some 85% of long COVID patients experience fatigue, making it one of the most common symptoms of long COVID.
However, people who have had COVID for a long time experience a range of other symptoms, such as “brain fog”, headaches and muscle aches. Patients with long COVID therefore experience more than fatigue, and sometimes have no fatigue at all.
Read more: Social media, activism, trucker hats: the fascinating story behind the long COVID
Is it like chronic fatigue syndrome?
This often develops after a viral infection (for example after an infection with Epstein-Barr virus). So naturally there have been concerns about the coronavirus possibly triggering chronic fatigue syndrome.
Read more: Explained: what is chronic fatigue syndrome?
There are striking similarities between chronic fatigue syndrome and long COVID. Both involve debilitating fatigue, brain fog, and/or muscle aches.
But at this point, the researchers are still untangle any link between post-COVID fatigue, long COVID and chronic fatigue syndrome.
For now, we know that many people will experience post-COVID fatigue, but fortunately they will not develop long COVID or chronic fatigue syndrome.
What helps me manage my fatigue?
Expect you or a loved one to develop post-COVID fatigue, no matter how sick you or they were during the actual infection.
Vaccines help reduce the risk of post-COVID fatigue by reducing the risk of catching COVID in the first place. Vaccinated people who catch COVID are less likely to report fatigue and are less likely to develop long COVID.
However, vaccination is not 100% protection and many fully vaccinated people continue to develop longer-term fatigue.
The evidence for what helps you recover from post-COVID fatigue is in its infancy. However, a few things help:
1. pace yourself: adjust the return to normal activities to your energy level. Choose your priorities and focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t
2. Resume exercise gradually: a gradual return to exercise can help you recover, but you may need help managing or avoiding fatigue afterwards. Some therapists – occupational therapists, physiotherapists and exercise physiologists – specialize in this area. So ask your GP for a referral.
3. prioritize sleep: rather than feeling guilty for sleeping so much, remember that while you sleep, your body conserve energy and heals. Disrupted sleep patterns are an unfortunate symptom of COVID. Having a strict bedtime, while also resting when you feel tired during the day, is important
4. Eat a range of nutritious foods: loss of smell, taste and appetite due to COVID can make this tricky. However, try to think of food as a way to provide your body with both energy and the micronutrients it needs to heal. Be careful not to spend a fortune on unproven “cures” that often look good in small studies, but more robust research finds make little difference
5. monitor your fatigue: keep a diary to monitor your fatigue and look for gradual improvement. You will have good days and bad days, but overall the recovery path should be slow. If you go back, seek the advice of a medical professional, such as your GP.