how long does it take, and am I immune after having Covid-19?

How do you best recover from the coronavirus? Should you exercise or stick to your bed? Which foods should you eat? And how long should you leave it before returning to work?

Here, we find answers to those coronavirus recovery questions. 

How long does it take to recover?

Patients with mild Covid-19 symptoms, who do not need to go to hospital, will usually recover within one to three weeks, says Dr Bharat Pankhania, clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter. 

For patients with more severe symptoms, including those who are admitted to hospital and required to use an oxygen mask, recovery might take longer. A report from the World Health Organisation published in February says that patients with a “severe or critical” case of Covid-19 can expect a median recovery time of three to six weeks.

Recovery can take longer still in the most serious cases, in which patients are admitted to intensive care and put on ventilation. Research published in the British Medical Journal, which is not specific to Covid-19, found that many patients who spent multiple weeks in intensive care reported problems with muscle weakness two months after leaving hospital. In some cases, the problems persisted for at least six months. They include difficulty climbing stairs, getting out of the bath, turning off taps, and driving.

However, Dr Pankhania stresses that serious symptoms do not automatically equate to a tortuous recovery, and some patients who require ventilation in intensive care “bounce back” remarkably quickly.

“It really depends on the resolution of the inflammation in the lung,” he says.

What happens to the body during healing?

Dr Pankhania says that many of the symptoms you might experience with Covid-19 – cough, fever, fatigue – are in fact a result of your body’s immune response launching into action to fight the virus. This immune response remains in place even after the virus has been defeated, and so recovery is in large part a case of waiting for your immune response to subside.

Your lungs may also need time to heal. “Your lungs and other organs have had a bashing by the virus,” he says. “It has damaged the lining of your lungs and your kidney cells, so there is a repair and regeneration process going on.” 

Are there any lasting physical effects?

Recovery comes more easily to some patients than others. Dr James Gill, GP and clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School, says it is currently assumed that, of those Covid-19 patients who are admitted to hospital, about 50 percent will require no further care after being discharged, 45 percent will need “some form of low-level medical or social [care]”, whilst five percent will need “more focused, intense rehabilitation”.

But all of these figures are highly subject to change as the coronavirus crisis develops and we learn more about the disease.

Dr Pankhania says that those patients who experience severe symptoms, including pneumonia, may suffer from reduced lung capacity afterwards. But because it is a new virus, he cautions, there is little we know for sure. 

“If you have a significant assault on your lungs and your lungs are either damaged due to the infection or a subsequent bacterial infection, then the end result is you end up with reduced lung capacity. To use one analogy: if before you could run 100 metres in 10 seconds, it might now take you 14 seconds.”

Those who experience mild Covid-19 symptoms are unlikely to suffer any long-term effects.

What about psychological effects?

Covid-19 is often compared with SARS, the less contagious but more severe member of the coronavirus family, which emerged in Asia in 2002. A study in 2007 showed that two-thirds of patients who recovered from SARS showed some evidence of a mental health impact, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr Gill says: “From this, we can extrapolate that patients recovering from Covid-19 should be advised to actively engage with mental health services, whether directly or via home-based approaches.”

It is worth pointing out, however, that SARS gave patients more severe symptoms than Covid-19, and is therefore likely to have a greater impact on mental health.

Am I at greater risk of catching something else while recovering?

“There is no evidence of that,” says Dr Pankhania. “But it would make common sense that if you’ve had a recent bad viral infection that you take every possible precaution not to get a secondary infection as well.”

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