Correction: This article was originally published on Wednesday March 9. It has since been updated and republished to include more up-to-date information on long Covid and comments from Dr Anna Brooks who is leading long Covid research in New Zealand.
Young Covid-19 survivors say they would never have pushed themselves physically during recovery if they had known it may have played a role in triggering their long Covid, an expert says.
Dr Anna Brooks, a cellular immunologist at the University of Auckland who is leading a major research project on long Covid in New Zealand, has worked with young Covid-19 survivors who are debilitated after having a ‘mild’ Covid-19 infection.
Young people who had been infected have said it may have been overexertion too soon in their recovery that may triggered their long Covid.
“Many say they would never have pushed through had they known,” she says.
A lot isn’t understood about long Covid but emerging research is helping people with the virus reduce their chances of developing the illness.
Long Covid is when symptoms persist past four weeks from the initial infection and can last for several months.
It is not yet known how prevalent long Covid is, but international estimates say 10 to 30 percent of Covid-19 cases will experience ongoing symptoms, Brooks says.
The Ministry of Health lists some of the most common symptoms of long Covid as fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, difficulty concentrating, muscle weakness and pain as well as low mood.
Photo: Dr Anna Brooks
Brooks says while the triggers of long Covid are not completely understood, the onset is likely due to direct viral infection of cells and persistent inflammation in the body that can be caused by incomplete clearance of the virus.
That’s why it is crucial to take recovery slow and not “push through”, she says.
So, how can you reduce your risk of developing long Covid?
The most important thing you can do is rest and avoid any intense exercise or busy activities in your recovery, Brooks says.
“It is incredibly important to avoid Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) – or any overexertion or stressors too soon, as this may exacerbate symptoms and cause further damage.”
Brooks says it’s important to understand that resting cannot prevent long Covid all together. Some people who have rested have still developed long Covid. But resting and avoiding exercise may decrease your chance of developing long Covid.
Learn the signs of an incomplete recovery
“The most common signs are breathlessness/cough, fatigue, headaches, racing heart, and general aches and pains,” Brooks says.
If you begin to exercise, and you feel any of these symptoms, that is your sign to keep resting, she says. Pushing through could mean facing severe and lasting symptoms.
Wait (longer than you think)
When it comes to knowing how long you should wait before exercising, Brooks says there is no magic answer or period of time.
“The only thing I can suggest is only consider exercising when there is literally no sign of any symptom. I'm talking when you feel 100 percent back to normal.”
“There is no one size fits all for the recommendation to return to exercise, you really need to listen to your body,” Brooks says.
“But any hint, any minor hint that you are feeling more tired than usual or you have a headache for example. That is a sign to extend your rest period.”
Brooks says she is hearing advice from the sports sector that you can exercise after 10 days.
“We are saying that is dangerous,” she says.
“You might be fine, but you might not. But pushing your body too far and too quickly could cripple you.
“The groups we work with both here and internationally have many young people who are now debilitated by a mild infection after exerting themselves too soon.”
Give your body the best chance to protect itself
Like with any illness, your body will have a better chance of fully recovering if you take care of it.
Getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition, hydration, and boosting your immunity will all help, Brooks says.
The fight isn’t over
Brooks says her key message to young people is: “If you haven’t had Covid-19 yet, it is not a guarantee that you will get infected. We can still protect ourselves.”
“Now is not the time to throw caution to the wind and accept that. If you do, that's at your own risk, but please know there is a risk of long-term complications, even if you have a mild case.”
Keeping up regular hygiene, mask-wearing, and getting vaccinated or boosted if you can are all key, Brooks says.
“If you get infected with Covid-19 while you’re not wearing a mask, there’s going to be a lot more virus particles in you.
“If you are wearing a mask and a virus sneaks in through the side, you’ve got a smaller chance of it taking hold in the same way.”
MRI scans reveal brain damage in mild cases of Covid-19, according to a new study
All severities of Covid-19 infection can develop into long Covid, including mild cases which are commonly seen among younger people.
In one of the largest Covid-19 brain imaging studies to date, researchers in the UK compared brain scans of 785 people aged 51 to 81 before and after they had mostly mild Covid-19 infections.
They also compared brain scans of people who have never Covid-19 for comparison.
In brain scans of patients infected with Covid-19, they found the pathways that relate to sense of smell and memory formation and recall had shrunk.
The researchers, whose work was published on Tuesday, reported the shrinkage or loss of brain volume was significant and exceeded a six percent difference on average.
The authors say these effects were still seen even after excluding the 15 people who had been hospitalised with Covid-19.
Even mild illness from Covid-19 may have consequences for the brain that could cause increased cognitive decline, the researchers say.
Professor Maurice Curtis, head of anatomy and medical imaging at the University of Auckland, says the loss of the sense of smell very early on in Covid-19 is a key sign of infection and some people never get their sense of smell back.
“The smell pathway and the memory pathway in the brain are connected and these are the same pathways affected in some dementias including Alzheimer’s disease,” Curtis says.
"The researchers also conclude that Covid-19 causes this shrinkage, whereas being infected with the seasonal flu did not cause brain shrinkage.”
Curtis says this study highlights that despite some infections seeming mild to some people, there is a long-term consequence of getting Covid-19 so all measures possible must be taken to reduce Covid-19’s impact on the body and especially the brain.
Update (30/05/2022): This story was originally published on March 9 at 4.38pm. It was republished on May 30 at 10.47am.
Top image: Young woman running under freeway overpass. Stock photo: Getty Images