Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and it is painfully clear that it is not going away anytime soon. Over 40 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and while they eventually recovered, many survivors experienced life-altering changes long after the virus passed through their system, lingering symptoms which many are calling “long COVID."

If you contracted COVID-19, you might still be experiencing this phenomenon long after the acute infection has passed. Long COVID presents as persistent symptoms ranging from mild headaches and general malaise to more serious problems such as extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating and shortness of breath. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. It is currently estimated that more than 13 million Americans are living with long COVID. These lingering symptoms are causing massive disruptions to their daily lives, affecting their ability to work, return to activities, or enjoying food and drink – all which are critical to quality of life.

One of the newly announced members of the American Lung Association research team, Dr. C. Terri Hough, is leading a partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) within the National Institutes of Health called the Recovery after COVID-19 Hospitalization (REACH) study. This partnership leverages a prospective cohort of over1,300 patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 in 44 hospitals across the United States.

Additional research funding from the American Lung Association allows Dr. Hough’s team to track patients previously hospitalized with COVID-19 across the United States for a longer period than the original study was designed. The REACH study will use surveys, interviews and in-person testing to gather information about their family experience and how COVID patients receive healthcare over the first year they are discharged from the hospital. This will help us better understand the varied roads to recovery and perhaps how to treat those suffering from long COVID.

But why did these patients develop ‘Long COVID’ in the first place? Is there something in these patients that predisposed them to get hit hard with lingering symptoms? Another newly awarded American Lung Association and NHLBI-supported study is looking at imaging data collected in many patients long before they were infected with COVID. Led by Dr. R. Graham Barr, the Collaborative Cohort of Cohorts for COVID-19 Research (C4R) Study is taking a unique approach using artificial intelligence (AI) to scour 30,000 CT scans to identify any patterns which might explain why these patients got so sick and why they took so long to recover. Dr. Barr’s team is using this incredible technology to harness the power of CT images from 14 different studies and aims to identify common findings that lead to worse and lingering symptoms.

What do these studies have in common? Aside from investigating more about COVID-19 and determinants of lung health, they both draw on huge data sets, some of which have already been collected in thousands of patients. In the imaging study, the use of AI and machine learning in medicine saves an incredible amount of time and can pick up subtle patterns that might not be noticed by the naked eye.

Researchers create computer algorithms and teach them to look for certain patterns on images that are known to be linked to specific diseases. Over time, these programs ‘learn’ how to distinguish patterns from each other and can sort through huge sets of images and data and report notable trends across patients. These studies are a prime example of combining forces with many different research centers and hospitals to move towards a common goal.

Why should you care?

By tracking COVID symptoms over time as well as common imaging findings in thousands of patients, these studies can lead to new treatments and improve long-term outcomes after COVID-19 infection, and in some cases, hospitalization. These studies will also help lead to early detection of people at greatest risk for developing long COVID. This team-based approach allows clinicians and researchers to arrive at solutions faster than if they were working separately, and support from the American Lung Association helps to bring these teams together.

Millions of Americans are Currently Experiencing 'Long COVID'

Even survivors with mild initial symptoms can have persistent symptoms that last for a month or more after infection with COVID-19.

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Top 5 Symptoms of 'Long COVID'

  1. Cough and Shortness of Breath
  2. Extreme Fatigue
  3. Mental Fog and Headache
  4. Joint and Chest Pain
  5. Loss of Taste and Smell

If you are experiencing lingering symptoms after being infected with COVID, or you feel worse or develop any new symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider. The American Lung Association has also launched a Long COVID online community to offer additional support.

Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and get vaccinated for COVID-19.

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