COVID Fatigue - Everything You Need to Know


A man with his hand one hand on his head and the other on his laptop, looking tired from COVID fatigue.

What is COVID Fatigue?

Summary
  • COVID fatigue is an often chronic feeling of tiredness. It can make managing daily tasks seem impossible, which impacts the quality of a person's life.
  • Your healthcare provider will diagnose COVID fatigue.
  • Other than tiredness, common symptoms of COVID fatigue can include neurological symptoms and problems, muscle pain, headaches, and trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • There are two types of COVID fatigue; severe and post-exertional malaise (PEM).
  • Treatment options for COVID fatigue include amino acid supplements, taking pain relief medication, and making lifestyle changes.

COVID fatigue is a common side effect of a COVID-19 infection. It’s a condition that can affect both your body and mind, causing feelings of extreme tiredness or weakness.

Even if your COVID symptoms were mild, there’s still a chance that post-viral fatigue can set in.

Nearly a third of people who test positive for the virus report feeling abnormally tired for long periods, even after recovering. Persistent fatigue was reported by almost 33%.

This article will discuss COVID fatigue, the causes, diagnoses, and treatment options.

What is COVID Fatigue?

COVID fatigue is a common symptom that can occur a few weeks after the initial COVID-19 infection.

It often manifests as severe tiredness that makes it extremely difficult to manage daily activities, like going to work or participating in social events.

This condition can also contribute to trouble sleeping, breathlessness, and “brain fog” — a condition that occurs when you have difficulty remembering, concentrating, and paying attention.

Although there is no specific reason for COVID fatigue, healthcare professionals agree that it’s related to the body’s initial response to infection.

This is because COVID-19 also releases infectious agents that can cause cognitive problems and other issues.

What Causes COVID Fatigue?

Although health care professionals are still trying to pinpoint the exact cause of COVID fatigue, some suggest that it has to do with the body’s response to the virus.

When a person is infected with COVID-19, their regulatory T cells are suppressed and the body struggles to form an immune response.

This causes structural damage to energy-generating cells, reducing antioxidant function and their ability to help the body protect itself.

When your body fights a virus, the immune system releases a chemical called cytokine. This chemical promotes swelling and contributes to the symptoms of a viral infection.

Cytokine levels usually return to normal once the virus has been killed. However, COVID fatigue suggests that the body fails to do this.

Long-term effects of COVID fatigue

Symptoms of COVID-19, like severe fatigue, can often last for more than four weeks. This can cause severe illness or manifest as a host of other medical issues.

These may include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Inflammatory and ischemic damage — where cells are harmed due to reduced blood flow — which can cause nervous system issues

  • Heart problems

  • Kidney damage

  • Breathing issues

  • Mental illness

What are the Symptoms of COVID Fatigue?

Emerging data from many clinical trials suggests that some patients infected with the coronavirus fail to fully recover.

They often report symptoms indicating mild illness for weeks or months after the initial infection. These range from mild to severe, depending on the individual’s experience.

The following symptoms are common signs of COVID fatigue:

  • Lowered ability to do activities that were usual before the illness. This is also accompanied by muscle weakness and shortness of breath.

  • Problems falling or staying asleep

  • Problems with thinking quickly or remembering things

  • Muscle and joint pain without swelling or redness

  • Headaches

  • Chest pain

  • Depression, anxiety, or stress

  • Chills and night sweats

Although you’ll likely be able to manage most of these symptoms at home, you should also keep track of how they develop.

If you feel like your symptoms haven’t improved after six months, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider about COVID fatigue.

Risk Factors for People Suffering from COVID Fatigue

Comorbidities and medical conditions

People who have from the following conditions are more likely to experience severe fatigue after being infected with COVID-19:

  • Pre-existing respiratory conditions

  • Diabetes

  • Cancer

  • Autoimmune diseases

Similarly, people older than 30 were also more likely to report symptoms of COVID fatigue.

Research suggests that women are also more likely to develop long-COVID symptoms like chronic fatigue.

Unvaccinated people

Patients who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 have a higher risk of experiencing ongoing health problems after their initial infections.

They are also more likely to struggle with post-COVID conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome for longer periods of time.

Are There Different Types of COVID Fatigue?

There are two types of COVID fatigue: severe and post-exertional malaise (PEM). We’ll take a closer look at what those are in this section.

Extreme COVID Fatigue

Extreme COVID fatigue often occurs in conditions like “long-COVID” — where patients experience prolonged symptoms of an illness.

This kind of fatigue is classified as a chronic feeling of weariness, tiredness, and lack of energy. It also affects a person’s motivation and concentration.

Extreme COVID fatigue can also impact physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. It ranges from mild to severe and can be persistent or experienced in waves.

Post-exertional malaise (PEM)

PEM is a specific type of fatigue that occurs in long-COVID patients and people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

It refers to feeling extremely tired after doing activities. These aren’t necessarily strenuous and can include mental work that otherwise seems effortless.

People who experience PEM may also find it challenging to do things like read a book or watch television.

Since these activities put a strain on the mind when it tries to concentrate, PEM can also cause stress and anxiety.

The effects of PEM don’t always show up immediately after an activity. It can take hours or even days for symptoms to manifest as extreme fatigue in the body.

When Should You Be Concerned About COVID Fatigue?

After you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you’ll have to monitor your symptoms for long-term fatigue.

If you feel like your symptoms haven’t improved within six months, it’s recommended you seek medical advice.

Your doctor will likely assess your medical history and run a physical examination to determine a diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider might also recommend that you see an occupational therapist to help manage your activity levels.

Concerned about COVID-19?

Book an online appointment with a doctor now to get your symptoms assessed.

Key Point: What is a Physical Examination?

A physical examination is a routine test to check your overall health and determine your diagnosis. However, you don’t necessarily have to be sick to request a checkup.

The check involves answering a series of questions about:

  • Your medical history
  • Allergies
  • Medication you are currently on
  • Past surgeries
  • Symptoms you may be experiencing
  • Lifestyle habits, like smoking or drinking

Your healthcare provider will also inspect and listen to your body with tools like a stethoscope.

This check can be done by any healthcare provider, including nurses or physician assistants.

Depending on the diagnosis, your health care provider may recommend additional testing, like having X-rays or an MRI scan done.

What Are Some COVID Fatigue Treatment Options?

Currently, no particular treatment for COVID fatigue has been found.

However, there are a number of things you can do to potentially help alleviate your symptoms.

L-carnitine supplements

L-carnitine is an amino acid that can prevent general feelings of tiredness and fatigue. It can also prevent muscle wasting by reducing the rate at which muscles break down.

Clinical trials have shown that L-carnitine supplements may be effective in relieving fatigue caused by an initial infection of COVID-19.

This amino acid can help the body feel more energized while relieving muscle soreness and weakness.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication

OTC pain medication may help alleviate any lingering joint or muscle aches. These include common medicines like:

  • Tylenol

  • Advil

  • Aspirin and NSAIDs

  • Paracetamol

By managing pain, you might also improve the quality and quantity of sleep. This also helps reduce fatigue during the day.

Don’t rest too much

Although you need to rest to fully recover from COVID fatigue, frequent breaks can actually worsen your condition.

If you feel exhausted during the day, taking short naps is more sensible than sleeping for hours at a time. Excess napping might prevent a restful night’s sleep and will end up increasing fatigue.

It might also be helpful to set up a daily routine and try following it as closely as possible.

This means waking up, going to sleep at certain times, and planning when you’ll have meals. When your body adjusts to a regular routine, your fatigue may also decrease.

Slowly incorporate activities

People can often increase their activity levels too quickly and suffer setbacks. This can worsen and prolong their fatigue.

If you’re working with an occupational therapist, they'll provide you with a treatment plan to ease you back into your everyday life.

This includes increasing the quantity or intensity of activities every couple of weeks and making adjustments where necessary.

They may also introduce relaxation techniques to reduce pain and other symptoms.

It's also recommended that you reduce ‘thinking activities’ like working, sending emails, and going shopping while you recover. These activities may take too much energy and cause unnecessary stress or anxiety.

Key Point: Using Herbal Medicines and Natural Remedies for COVID Fatigue

Herbal medicines have become an increasingly popular option in managing post-disease fatigue.

There is evidence to suggest that natural remedies can be used as adjuvant symptomatic therapy.

This means that they should be used in conjunction with vaccines and other medications to create a stronger immune response.

However, the FDA hasn’t approved any herbal remedies for treating post-COVID fatigue safely.

You should speak to your healthcare provider if this is something you're considering. They can help you to make informed choices that can help relieve your symptoms.

Have You Been Struggling to Manage Daily Activities After Having COVID-19?

If you’re experiencing post-COVID fatigue, board-certified doctors and nurse practitioners are here to help. Book an appointment today, and talk to a licensed medical professional online.

Dr. Banita Sehgal

Dr. Sehgal received her medical degree from Western University in Los Angeles and trained as Chief Resident at White Memorial Medical Center, also in Los Angeles. She’s been practicing medicine for 20+ years and has a specific interest in women’s health.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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