As the world continues to navigate life amid COVID-19, millions of Americans are still struggling with the daily health effects of “long COVID.”
Nicole Bullock Like Nicole Bullock, age 42. She’s had a headache since Jan. 21, 2022. That was the first day of her COVID-19 symptoms. The continuous migraine has not gone away even though many of her other symptoms have subsided. Since that day, she’s had to go to the hospital emergency center four times, had an MRI scan of her brain and was given various medication to help the excruciating headache. “It is just not going away. Sometimes I’ll have a good day and I can tolerate it with just Tylenol,” said Bullock.
While much attention has been paid to the death count and trends in cases and hospitalizations during the pandemic, almost 23 million Americans are battling “long COVID” -- and that number is growing every day. It’s a general term given to symptoms that persist for weeks and months after a person recovers from their initial illness or is discharged from the hospital. Among these symptoms are muscle fatigue, loss of taste or smell, breathlessness, fogginess, memory struggles and persistent headaches. For those that were hospitalized for COVID treatment, experts say it may be difficult to discern between the effects from spending such an extended time in intensive care versus the long-term effects of the virus. For individuals who already suffer from migraines – like Bullock – COVID-19 can intensify those and often make them worse. Why this is happening has yet to be explained; but multiple studies have identified this phenomenon and research is ongoing. Data collection is planned in clinical studies to potentially create a new definition from the International Headache Society for this type of headache from COVID-19. Some scientists speculate the body’s inflammatory reaction during COVID-19 could play a role in the long-COVID headache. Additionally, sleep disruptions associated with long COVID could also be a factor in chronic headaches, poor memory and other cognitive issues.
Managing COVID headaches
Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Motrin) or aspirin may offer some relief, yet doctors warn that overusing these drugs may lead to an additional headache or even temporarily or permanently damage other organs. Finding a solution to manage headaches from COVID is important to discuss with your primary care provider – especially if over-the-counter medications aren’t working.
Living with long COVID
Nicole Bullock in the hospital receiving treatment for her headaches. Bullock had taken every precaution throughout the first two years of the pandemic to avoid becoming sick as she had previously been diagnosed with acute respiratory distress syndrome, which put her more at risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Despite having all the courses of the vaccine, she still had a significant impact from her COVID. If she didn’t get properly vaccinated, it likely would have been even worse. Now, Bullock is navigating life as a mother to a lively toddler while trying to find solutions and answers to her health issues. She experiences bouts of nausea and vomiting triggered by loud noises, bright flashing lights and smells, which she believes is a side effect of migraines exacerbated by her COVID illness. As COVID case counts continue to fall across the country, many COVID public health measures are being lifted – yet for many like Bullock, COVID is still a part of her life. “It’s frustrating when I’m battling long COVID and I go to the grocery store wearing a mask and people ask me why I’m wearing a mask,” said Bullock. “I think also I’m hoping that by sharing my story so transparently, I can help other people who are having strange symptoms that don’t add up.” The best way to prevent long COVID is to prevent getting COVID itself – which is by getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID. Find a COVID vaccine location near you by visiting vaccines.gov. More from MIBluesPerspectives: