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Recovering from COVID-19

Kathy Carter

Contributor

Many individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 are wondering how to rebuild their health and wellness moving forward. With literature and research scant, the best course of action is surely to promote your mental and physical wellness as you would when recovering from any viral condition – listening to your body and making positive lifestyle choices, and seeking medical advice from your healthcare practitioner where required.

What do we know so far?

Reports suggest that most individuals who contract coronavirus experience mild symptoms, according to Chinese data. Researchers that collated information from 72,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 found that more than 80% of affected individuals experienced only mild symptoms, while 87% recovered completely.

Of course, individuals at higher risk due to underlying conditions such as cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory disease, high blood pressure or cancer will recover differently to those whose symptoms were mild, and who have no underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable.

It is believed that having the disease once results in immunity in most (but not all) individuals - as is seen with other coronaviruses. However, experts agree that the immune response to COVID-19 is not yet understood; and an individual’s risk factors, for example relating to lifestyle, smoking and weight, all play a part in both the duration of illness and also recovery. So if you have recovered from coronavirus, what can you do to boost health and wellness for the future? 

Post-viral fatigue

PVF refers to a sense of tiredness and weakness that lingers after a person has fought off a viral infection; it can include trouble concentrating, headaches, low mood and general lethargy. Some sources suggest an overloaded immune system causes some of the symptoms, while others propose inflammatory processes in the brain and body are key factors.

In terms of managing post-viral fatigue, over-the-counter pain medication should help alleviate headaches and other general aches and pains. It’s also important to get at least seven hours sleep a night; in fact, as much as your body requires.

Conserving energy and getting plenty of rest is highly recommended, as is drinking plenty of water, engaging in appropriate, gentle exercise, and eating a balanced, healthy diet that contains plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and anti-inflammatory foods. (These include tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fatty fish and certain fruits).

Individuals should also avoid inflammation-inducing foods such as fried and fast foods. Stress reduction techniques may also help, as well as mindfulness techniques, meditation, yoga and massage sessions.

Airways and lungs

Individuals whose lungs have been affected by a virus may take a considerable amount of time to recover their health and fitness levels. Preliminary data out of Hong Kong indicates that people who recover from COVID-19 may see decreased lung functioning and capacity, according to reports from the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.

Generally, individuals with reduced lung capacity should work with their health clinicians on a programme of recovery; for example carefully tailored cardiovascular exercise such as swimming, and sessions with an approved Respiratory Care Physiotherapist. Such interventions should boost lung capacity, along with healthy lifestyle choices.

For those recovering from viruses who do not have severely compromised airways and lungs, again, rest, plenty of water, gentle exercise and a healthy diet will help the individual regain optimal respiratory health, under their healthcare provider’s guidance.

Immunity

Anyone with compromised immunity would benefit from a healthy lifestyle. According to Harvard experts, there is still much that researchers don't know about the ‘interconnectedness’ of the immune response, and (surprisingly) no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function have been widely agreed upon – for example, it isn’t known how many cells the immune system needs to function at its optimum level. (It is the breach of immune defences by a pathogen that causes the body’s immune cells, or white blood cells, to battle with the germ.) 

Reportedly, as there are so many different kinds of cells in the immune system that respond to differing microbes (which go on to help protect against pathogens), hard-and-fast guidelines are impossible to give. Experts do agree that is important to eat well to develop good level of gut microbiomes – the microbiomes consist of trillions of bacteria that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract, and form protective barriers; one of their purposes is boosting immune systems. Fruit, veg and fibre increase gut microbiome population.

Whilst exact guidelines on boosting immunity are impossible to give, most indicators suggest that poor diet, exercise and stress can adversely effect immunity, and that healthy-living strategies can boost the body’s production of immune cells. Such strategies include not smoking, eating a diet high in fruit and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, sleeping well, drinking alcohol in moderation, and minimising stress. Vitamins C, B6 and E are all reportedly good immune boosters.

Mental health and resilience

After any illness, and particularly after a pandemic, with all its extra connotations of vicarious trauma (e.g. resulting from empathetic engagement with other people that have experienced trauma), maintaining mental health is key.

The UK’s Mental Health Foundation advises prioritising looking after yourself, e.g. with suitable exercise routines, relaxation techniques and healthcare provisions, but also advises avoiding sources of rumour and speculation, which can fuel anxiety, staying connected with friends and family, assessing your social media activity (you may for example benefit from unfollowing accounts or hashtags that cause you to feel anxious), and finding out about and carrying out random acts of kindness.

Moving forward from the recent COVID-19 issues, we all need to utilise a great deal of self-care to build up our emotional resilience, and protect our long-term mental health.

Getting back to health

As we have mentioned, a healthy diet is beneficial to anyone recovering from a virus. Not smoking, moderating alcohol and drinking sufficient amounts of water are also advised, while mindfulness techniques, meditation, yoga and massage sessions may also be beneficial.

Getting back to fitness takes a while. A week’s bed rest for a formerly fit person reportedly results in around a 30 per cent loss of fitness. Therefore, individuals should take their time before ramping up their exercise regimes after suffering with a viral condition.

Obviously it is important to wait for your recovery first, perhaps starting with gentle walks, and going on to use a low intensity, short duration exercise plan. (Individuals with conditions such as cardiovascular issues, diabetes, respiratory disease, high blood pressure or cancer (as well as those with compromised airways and lungs) who have experienced a viral condition must always work closely with their healthcare professional regarding any form of lifestyle management.

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