Life after COVID-19: Questions linger about lasting symptoms, reinfection

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– More than 140,000 Wisconsinites have recovered from the coronavirus, including me. I contracted the virus in early-October, but am now considered recovered. But while symptoms have improved and I’ve been cleared to be around others, I still had questions about my health in the future.

When might all my symptoms go away?

mal during covid

While sick, I had a fever, chills, nausea and body aches. Loss of taste and smell started a few days after my initial symptoms.

I still don’t have taste or smell and sometimes it’s hard to catch my breath. Dr. Elizabeth Cogbill, an internal medicine physician with Gundersen Health System, said some symptoms might last longer– anywhere from weeks to months after the initial infection.

“This is an area that’s being researched actively,” said Cogbill.

If they do continue, she recommends contacting a primary care physician to further discuss the symptoms. Your provider could explain if this is to be expected or something to be concerned about.

If I were to be feeling sick again, it could be signs of something else like the flu, a secondary bacterial illness or potentially fibrosis or scarring of the lungs.

“Which is what we’re seeing even in young patients, who are relatively healthy, months down the road,” said Dr. Joseph Poterucha, chair of critical care for Mayo Clinic Health System.

Could I still be spreading the virus?

Gundersen Health System recommends you isolate at least 10 full days since your symptoms started, your symptoms are improving, and are fever-free for at least 24 hours without taking any medicine. You should stay at home and self-isolate until all three have happened.

After that, the CDC says recovered people can still shed detectible coronavirus RNA in upper respiratory specimens for up to three months after onset. But infectiousness is unlikely.

“That shedded particle of the virus when you try to grow it, it does not yield that toxic virus that is contagious,” Poterucha said.

Could I be reinfected?

Only a blood test would show if I have antibodies. That would show if my immune system developed a response to the virus and that was still evident in my blood, usually weeks to months later.

“However it’s important to note not everybody will have antibodies detected in their blood,” Cogbill said.

That’s part of the reason why it’s unclear if anyone could be reinfected. There are now documented cases of reinfection, but it is still being studied.

“Not enough time has passed since the start of this pandemic began for us to definitively answer that question,” Cogbill said.

So should I still be following guidelines to stop the spread?

Cogbill and Poterucha agree that it is best to still follow best practices. Because it’s unclear if people could contract the coronavirus again, it’s important to keep washing your hands, wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings for the remainder of the pandemic.

“All of those things remain very important for all of us,” Cogbill said.

“We don’t understand how this is all playing out. We need more information, we need to listen to the scientists,” Poterucha said.

If you do test positive, you might want to consider donating plasma. It is being evaluated for a possible treatment for current COVID-19 patients. Organizations including the American Red Cross and Versiti are seeking donors.