COMMENTARY

A Long Look at Long Haulers

William G. Wilkoff, MD

September 03, 2021

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With the number of pediatric infections with SARS-CoV-2 rising it is not surprising that children with persistent symptoms are beginning to accumulate. Who are these pediatric "long haulers" and do they differ from their adult counterparts? The answer is far from clear because the terms "long COVID" and "long hauler" are not well defined. But, I suspect we will find that they will be similar in most respects.

In a recent Guest Essay in the New York Times, two medical school professors attempt to inject some common sense into the long hauler phenomenon. ("The Truth About Long Covid is Complicated. Better Treatment Isn't," Adam Gaffney and Zackary Berger, The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2021).

The authors divide the patients with long COVID into three categories. The first includes those who are complaining of persistent cough and fatigue for up to 3 months, a not unexpected course for patients recovering from a significant respiratory illness like pneumonia.

The second group comprises patients who developed acute respiratory distress syndrome during the course of their SARS-CoV-2 infection. These unfortunate individuals likely incurred lung damage that may have triggered renal damage and delirium and may never regain full function.

The third group of patients reports a wide variety of less specific symptoms including, but not limited to, severe fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal symptoms, chronic pain, and palpitations.

The authors of the essay refer to several studies in which there was little if any correlation between these patients' complaints and their antibody levels. In fact, one study of adolescents found that in a group with similar symptoms many of the individuals had no serologic evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Unfortunately, the lay public, the media, and some physicians make no distinction between these three groups and lump them all under the same long COVID umbrella. The resulting confusion seeds unwarranted anxiety among the first and third groups and may prevent some individuals from receiving the appropriate attention they deserve.

I suspect that like me, many of you see some similarities between this third group of long COVID patients and adolescents whose persistent symptoms don't quite fit with their primary illness. Patients labeled as having post-concussion syndrome or "chronic Lyme disease" come immediately to mind. In both conditions, many of the patients had little if any evidence of severe insult from the initial event but continue to complain about a variety of symptoms including severe fatigue and brain fog.

We have done a very poor job of properly managing these patients. And there are a lot of them. A large part of the problem is labeling. In the old days one might have said these patients were having "psychosomatic" symptoms. But, while it may be an accurate description, like the term "retardation" it has been permanently tarnished. Fortunately, most of us are smart enough to avoid telling these patients that it is all in their heads.

However, convincing an individual that many of his symptoms may be the result of the psychological insult from the original disease compounded by other stresses and lifestyle factors can be a difficult sell. The task is made particularly difficult when there continue to be physicians who will miss or ignore the obvious and embark on therapeutic endeavors that are not only ineffective but can serve as a distraction from the real work of listening to and engaging these patients whose suffering may be just as real as that of those long haulers with structural damage.

Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including "How to Say No to Your Toddler." Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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