With a significant part of people developing long COVID after their initial COVID-19 infection, taking this emerging condition seriously is important for establishing diagnostic protocols and treatment options. While many medical practitioners dismissed long COVID as a serious condition, even though it shares many symptoms with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS.
Although still considered a mystery, more answers about long COVID may be available if researchers look at this illness as a type of post-viral fatigue syndrome since it occurs following a COVID-19 infection or reinfection.
What Is Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome?
Most people experience fatigue at some point in their life as exhaustion can happen for many reasons. However, if you have struggled with a viral infection and are still experiencing fatigue for several weeks or months, you are likely dealing with post-viral fatigue syndrome.
Research has shown that post-viral fatigue syndrome can occur after infection from viruses such as Epstein-Barr, herpes, and rubella. With long COVID being the result of a mild to severe COVID-19 infection, this illness matches post-viral fatigue syndrome descriptions.
Common symptoms of post-viral fatigue syndrome include:
- Cognitive issues
- Headaches or migraines
- Low energy levels
- Musculoskeletal pains
- Sore throat
Hypotheses on causes of post-viral fatigue syndrome currently point toward the infection triggering an unusual response in your body, and high levels of proinflammatory cytokines that can lead to inflammation, including in nervous tissues.
Symptom Overlap in Long COVID and CFS
Back in July 2020, Dr. Fauci, MC, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases commented that long COVID symptoms were “strikingly similar” to those of ME/CFS, confirming what had transpired in online communities where people experiencing long COVID shared their symptoms, which looked very familiar to those with ME/CFS.
Even before research began on long COVID symptoms, many people leveraged social media to find others who shared their experiences and to call attention to the widespread emergence of what they dubbed “long COVID.” Even when doctors denied that long COVID was an actual condition in a similar way to how ME/CFS was considered a myth in the past, those with either or both conditions kept advocating for themselves.
Long COVID and ME/CFS share a vast overlap of symptoms like:
- Brain fog and cognitive impairment
- Chronic fatigue
- Dysfunctional nervous system
- Muscle aches
- Post-exertional malaise (PEM)
- Sleep disorders
Another hurdle those with ME/CFS have been facing is the disruption of research due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With both conditions and other types of post-viral fatigue syndrome requiring further attention now, getting studies back on track and hopefully obtaining more substantial funding is critical for millions of people affected by those health issues.
The Need for More Medical Research on Long COVID, CFS, and Similar Conditions
With multiple studies indicating that possibly half of long COVID patients meet the diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS, additional research is necessary to get a more detailed understanding of both conditions and how they may be related. If people experience more than one COVID-19 infection, their risk to develop ME/CFS and become disabled for several months up to a lifetime increases.
Although COVID-19 vaccination reduces the risk of long COVID, it does not eradicate it and studying how immunization helps prevent long COVID can shed further light on the mechanisms at play in this lasting condition.
Another hurdle in addressing long COVID is the lack of education on ME/CFS for medical students, which may leave physicians unfamiliar with useful advice. Although there is no FDA-approved medication to manage ME/CFS key issues, following a “stop, rest, and pace” approach can make a positive difference. Individuals struggling with long COVID can also benefit from stopping when they experience symptom flare-ups, resting as much as possible, and doing what they can without pushing their body too much even if it means doing less than they would like to.
The Importance of Getting a Diagnosis
Although more research on long COVID is necessary, we may have more answers than we think because it falls within the category of virally triggered conditions. Creating clearer diagnostic protocols for illnesses similar to long COVID like ME/CFS can help individuals receive clearer information on what they are dealing with.
Receiving a diagnosis can validate one’s experience and allow them to move forward with possible treatments to manage and/or alleviate their symptoms, especially when it comes to lifelong issues like ME/CFS and possibly long COVID.
Thanks to the strong advocacy from the long COVID community, we may hope for greater progress in research and treatments for this condition and other chronic ones, especially as early results from long COVID studies are similar to those for ME/CFS.
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