Life After COVID-19: A Guide for Patients and Families

Life After COVID-19: A Guide for Patients and Families

This article is for people who've had coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and their caregivers, or anyone who wants to learn more about COVID-19. The goal of this patient education activity is to improve the knowledge of patients and caregivers about how COVID-19 can affect the body.

You will learn about:

  • What COVID-19 is and how it affects the body

  • Factors that could put you at a higher risk for severe illness

  • Possible long-term problems and what can cause them

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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Test Your Knowledge

What Is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. If you're exposed to the virus, you may get an infection that starts in the upper respiratory tract (nose, sinuses, and throat). COVID-19 is caused by a new (or novel) coronavirus. This means that humans were never exposed to it before and COVID-19 is a new disease.

COVID-19 is thought to be mainly spread by droplets in the air that are formed when someone who's infected talks, coughs, or sneezes. The virus then infects someone else when the droplets enter their mouth, nose, or eyes.

Main Symptoms of COVID-19

Most people have mild or no symptoms. But for others, symptoms can be severe.

Symptoms usually happen 2 to 14 days after being exposed to the virus and can include:

  • Fever (temperature over 100°F)

  • Chills, sometimes with shaking

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing

  • Cough

  • Headache

  • Muscle or body ache

  • Fatigue (tiredness)

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion (stuffy) or runny nose

  • Loss of smell or taste

  • Pain in your abdomen (belly)

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

Severe Illness: What Could Put You at a Higher Risk

For most people, COVID-19 is mild. But it can also cause severe illness and even death. 

Anyone can get COVID-19, but it is especially dangerous for elderly people. Having certain conditions could also put adults, no matter what their age is, at a higher risk.

These include:

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity or being overweight

  • Certain heart or blood vessel conditions

  • High blood pressure

  • Cancer

  • Chronic (long-term) kidney disease

  • Certain lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or moderate to severe asthma

  • Liver disease

  • Nerve and brain conditions, including dementia

  • A weakened immune system

People who smoke or are pregnant could also be at a higher risk.

COVID-19 Doesn't Just Affect Your Lungs

COVID-19 can damage many other body systems and organs, in addition to your lungs. As a result, it can cause many different complications, or additional problems.

These can include:

  • Pneumonia (lungs fill with fluid or pus) or respiratory failure where you lungs stop working

  • Heart, liver, or kidney problems

  • Septic shock, a body-wide infection that leads to dangerously low blood pressure

  • Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). A rare, but serious, condition that can damage the heart, kidneys, and other organs in children and teens

  • Death

What Causes These Complications?

It's thought that many of the complications from COVID-19 are caused by a condition called a "cytokine storm." This happens when an outside invader -- such as a virus -- triggers your immune system (your body's natural defense system) and it overreacts.

During a normal response, your immune system releases a type and amount of special cells and proteins (cytokines) into your blood. These attack the invader to fight off infection. But sometimes your immune system is unable to limit itself and starts to attack its own cells and tissues instead of just the invader. This can kill healthy tissue and damage your organs. Doctors believe this is what happens during COVID-19.

Possible Long-Term Complications

The damage to your organs caused by COVID-19 may increase your risk for long-term complications and effects on your health, such as problems with:

  • Heart, blood vessels, and kidneys

  • Breathing and how your lungs work

  • Smell and taste

  • Mood, fatigue, and sleep

  • Thinking, concentration, or memory

Dr J. Nwando Olayiwola talks about the possible long-term complications that can happen from COVID-19, and how patients can work with their doctor to track their health.

Recovering From COVID-19

Most people will recover from COVID-19 fairly quickly, in a few weeks. But this is a new disease so it's still not known exactly how having COVID-19 can affect you in the long term. This includes complications and symptoms that may remain or come back, and how long they may last.

This means that having regular contact and open communication with your doctor is key. It's important be aware of and record any symptoms or problems so you can discuss them.

Your doctor will also track how well your organs are working and your overall health. Together, you can work toward your recovery.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Questions you can ask your doctor about COVID-19 can include:

  • What can I do to protect myself and others?

  • Am I at an increased risk for severe illness?

  • What symptoms should I look for, and what should I do if I have them?

  • How can COVID-19 affect my body, both in the short term and the long term?

  • What should I know about recovering from COVID-19?

  • Where can I find more information or additional resources?

Test Your Knowledge

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You have successfully completed the program: Life After COVID-19: A Guide for Patients and Families

View Additional Materials

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -- CDC

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -- NIH

Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Advice for the Public

What to Do if You Are Sick

When You Can Be Around Others After You Had or Likely Had COVID-19

Long-Term Effects of COVID-19

Authors and Disclosures


J. Nwando Olayiwola, MD, MPH, FAAFP

Chair and Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine
Founder, Center for Primary Care Innovation and Transformation
The Ohio State University College of Medicine & Wexner Medical Center
Columbus, Ohio
Disclosure: J. Nwando Olayiwola, MD, MPH, FAAFP, has disclosed the following relevant financial relationships:
Owns stock, stock options, or bonds from: RubiconMD

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Senior Director, Learning & Development, Medscape, LLC
Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Senior Scientific Content Manager, Medscape, LLC
Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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