COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, can affect people in a multitude of ways ranging from very mild illness to severe complications and death. Many people recover from COVID-19 with no lasting effects, but a small group of COVID-19 survivors experience lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath and “brain fog” for months after their apparent recovery.
Researchers are still working to understand the condition that’s commonly called “long haul” COVID, but new clinics dedicated to their problems are helping patients cope with their symptoms – and recent research suggests that innovative treatments including cannabis could provide relief.
The Mystery of Long Haul COVID
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is so new that researchers around the world are still working to unravel its mysteries.
Because the SARS-CoV-2 virus can attach to a cell receptor called ACE2 that’s found in many kinds of tissues, COVID-19 symptoms can vary widely, ranging from the well-known fever, cough and body aches to less-common gastrointestinal problems like stomach pain and diarrhea, or cardiovascular issues such as blood clots.
COVID-19 can affect anyone, although seniors and those with other health problems are generally at higher risk of serious complications. And as the immune system ramps up defenses against the virus, it causes the “cytokine storm” that overwhelms the organs and can lead to death.
Barring complications, people typically recover from COVID-19 in seven to ten days. But for about 30 percent of those who contract the virus, a variety of symptoms can linger for weeks and even months after the acute phase of the virus.
Doctors have long known that people who become severely ill with COVID-19 can be left with a long list of potentially serious health issues. But those who experience long haul COVID are typically people who have had a milder form of the virus. For them, some of the symptoms they had while ill simply never go away. Those can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Persistent cough
- Impaired sense of taste or smell
- Headaches These symptoms can disrupt daily life in a multitude of ways. Some long haul COVID patients can no longer work. For others, exercise is impossible. Brain fog and chronic pain can make it hard to manage even the simplest routine tasks.
Long Haul COVID Clinics Help Patients Cope
Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, researchers are still struggling to understand the reasons for such a wide variation in symptoms and individual responses to the virus, and that includes the mystery of long haul COVID.
Some patients say that their doctors are skeptical of their condition and attribute it to other factors such as a different infection, chronic fatigue syndrome or stress. That makes it hard for COVID long haulers to get the help they need to manage symptoms and take steps toward recovery.
Now, though, special COVID care clinics are springing up around the country. These clinics can offer a variety of targeted therapies to support recovery, such as physical therapy, diet plans, breathing exercises, and mental health resources. Above all, these clinics provide reassurance that the symptoms are real and COVID-related, and that help is possible.
In hard-hit South Los Angeles, St. John’s Well Child and Family network of community clinics, doctors work to follow up and offer outreach to everyone who tests positive for the virus. Other clinics, such as the University of Texas Medical Branch facilities, offer assessment and treatment to anyone whose symptoms haven’t subsided within a few weeks of contracting the virus.
There’s currently no cure for long haul COVID, and no clear data on how long it might last. But researchers are exploring whether some treatments and therapies designed for other conditions might help to treat COVID in general – and potentially for long haul COVID as well. An essential enzyme known as NAD+, ivermectin, a medication originally intended as an antiparasitic, and cannabis are among the many options being explored.
NAD+: A New Use for an Essential Enzyme
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, is a coenzyme that’s found in all living cells. In its active form it’s called NAD+, and recently it’s become the focus of intense research for its ability to boost the functioning of a multitude of key biological processes.
NAD+ supports DNA and cell repair, helps the body extract energy from food, and encourages the optimal functioning of chromosomes. But as the body ages, it makes less NAD+, which leads to weaker defenses against disease and greater risk of age-related problems such as cognitive decline and muscle weakness.
Research suggests that NAD+ supplementation, especially in the form of IV infusions, can improve brain function, fight chronic fatigue, regenerate cells and boost the metabolism. And some studies have found that NAD+ infusions could inhibit the COVID complications that arise from the cytokine storm, an overreaction of the immune system as it attempts to fight the virus.
Ivermectin: New Applications for an Old Drug
In the rush to find treatments for all types of COVID illness, researchers have been exploring ways to repurpose existing drugs created to treat other conditions. One of these is ivermectin, a medication originally developed to treat parasitic infections.
Although ivermectin is FDA-approved for that purpose, it hasn’t yet been approved for treating symptoms of COVID-19. Still, in preliminary studies, ivermectin has been shown to reduce inflammation and interfere with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that attaches to cell membranes.
Researchers warn that more studies are needed to say with certainty that ivermectin can play a meaningful role in treating COVID-19. Some study participants showed improvement in their symptoms, while others didn’t. The National Institutes of Health has decided, at least for now, against recommending it as a valid treatment for COVID-19, but the NIH also leaves the decision to use ivermectin up to individual doctors and their patients.
Cannabis Could Help COVID Long Haulers
The many compounds in cannabis work with the body’s natural endocannabinoid system to provide many health benefits, and research continues to reveal more ways these compounds can help to keep brain and body in balance.
Cannabidiol CBD, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and more than 100 other compounds work together to boost immune functioning, reduce inflammation, and keep the body’s many subsystems working in sync.
Studies have also shown that cannabis is a powerful neuroprotectant capable of preserving neural pathways in the brain after trauma such as a brain injury or stroke. All of these properties make cannabis a promising candidate for relieving many symptoms of COVID-19 that affect the long haulers.
A recent study suggests that some cannabis strains could help to reduce the out of control immune reactions that cause some of the most severe effects of the virus. And other recent research shows that cannabis strains high in CBD may help to reduce lung inflammation and damage that frequently occurs with severe COVID-19.
For those reasons, cannabis could also be useful for relieving many of the symptoms of long haul COVID. Because it’s often used for arthritis and other kinds of chronic pain, it may help with the joint aches and frequent headaches that come with long haul COVID.
Some cannabis strains can be especially useful for boosting focus and concentration, so they may help with the brain fog and cognitive problems that go along with long haul COVID. Cannabis can also help to relieve anxiety and depression, which affect many people dealing with long-term COVID symptoms.
Cannabis advocates warn that it’s best to avoid smoking cannabis if you’re suffering from COVID symptoms, since that can irritate the lungs. Consider vaping, fast-acting tinctures or edibles instead.
Because COVID-19 is so new, researchers still don’t understand why some people become COVID long haulers. But cannabis and other innovative treatments can help them feel better while symptoms linger on.