The Best Type Of Doctor To See If You Have Long COVID
Here's where to start to determine the best route of treatment.
Mar 7, 2023, 05:45 AM EST
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It's a good idea to start with your primary care doctor before seeking out specialized long COVID treatment.
For the millions of people suffering from long COVID ― which is an ongoing condition as a result of a COVID infection ― getting answers and help can feel like a large undertaking. Many doctors aren’t familiar with the condition and there isn’t a treatment that can instantly cure you of long COVID. Plus, the disease doesn’t look the same for everyone.
The most common symptoms include chronic fatigue, mental health disorders, shortness of breath, brain fog and fast heart rate, but you can have one of these symptoms or multiple. The breadth of the illness makes it hard to diagnose and treat.
“People are all suffering in such unique ways and not everybody needs the same type of doctor or therapist,” said Dr. Wes Ely , the co-director of the critical illness, brain dysfunction and survivorship center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
But there are doctors in many different specialties who are well-versed in the signs and treatments available so far. Here, experts share the best kind of doctors and treatment facilities to visit if you have — or think you have — long COVID:
Start with your primary care doctor.
“The first thing I tell everybody is talk to your primary care [doctor],” said Dr. William Lago , the medical director of Cleveland Clinic’s Recover Clinic for long COVID patients. “One of the things you need to do ... is make sure that there’s nothing else that’s going on.”
In other words, not all symptoms associated with this chronic condition are actually long COVID — it could be another issue altogether.
“Sometimes from COVID, you can have other complications. We’ve seen other people that have had other health issues that sometimes they’re assuming are long COVID and it’s not,” Lago said.
When working with your primary care doctor, you can establish that nothing else is going on before you begin your treatment journey. But it’s important that your primary care doctor is prepared to help you on your path to wellness.
“Some primary care physicians are comfortable dealing with long COVID, some of them aren’t,” Lago said.
If you find that you are struggling to feel heard or respected by your primary care doctor, don’t be afraid to seek out another physician.
You can also try a long COVID treatment center.
According to Lago, there are comprehensive COVID treatment centers throughout the country that specialize in treating long COVID. These centers “actually take a look at people and break down the symptoms and decide what our best course of action is,” he said. They often have all different kinds of doctors within the center so many issues can be treated at once, which is a plus for the many people dealing with multiple long COVID symptoms.
You may be able to find one at your local hospital or at the largest health system in your area — like a university health system, for example. Just keep in mind that not all areas of the country have long COVID centers, while some treatment clinics have waits of up to four or six months for an appointment, according to an article in the medical news publication JAMA . Ely added that some of these centers are also closing because of funding issues, which may be the reason why you don’t have one in your area, too.
According to Survivor Corps, a long COVID advocacy group, there are treatment centers in 48 of the 50 states. See here for Survivor Corps’ comprehensive database.
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If you don't have a long COVID treatment center near you and you have an isolated symptom, you can seek out doctors who specialize in the care you need.
For specific symptoms, you can see a specialist.
If you have an isolated symptom, Lago said you can plan to see a specific type of doctor who can treat that issue. Seeing a specialist can be especially useful for those who cannot access a long COVID treatment centers.
For example, “some folks with chest discomfort may want to start with cardiology,” Lago said. If you are experiencing chronic fatigue, you may be referred to a neurologist, sleep specialist or rheumatologist for treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
If you suspect that your issue just has to do with your lungs, “pulmonologists are a great way to get yourself evaluated,” Ely said. In this case, however, the answer may not be just the lungs (this is why he prefers a comprehensive long COVID treatment center if you have one nearby).
If you have a common long COVID symptom like a persistent headache, you can go to a neurologist. Or, if you’re dealing with stomach issues, you can make an appointment with a gastroenterologist.
“That’s why most of the time start with your primary care [doctor]. Some of them can do the referrals to the appropriate folks depending on what the actual symptom is,” Lago said.
Beyond doctors, look for support groups.
In addition to a medical support team, Ely stressed that it’s important for people with long COVID to have mental health support. He recommended long COVID patients find an online support group to plug into a community of people going through this, too.
Not only does this emotionally support you, but it can also arm you with useful knowledge. “Start utilizing the resources of all the people in the support group,” Ely said.
For example, maybe you can’t get to a long COVID treatment center but someone in the group can — you’re likely to learn some secondhand information from that other group member.
It’s a good way to get educated about what’s going on in your body and in your brain, Ely said. “They know better questions to ask and then go and find the right people in their own area,” he added.
Your local hospital may have a support group or you can try using Psychology Today’s support group search function to find a group near you.
Since there isn’t a cure-all pill, doctors are treating symptoms for now.
“The problem with long COVID is because it’s still a new disease we’re still trying to sort out what causes it, there’s no magic treatment as of yet,” Lago said.
This means doctors are working to control the symptoms in their patients by using symptomatic treatment — like treating anxiety (which is a common long COVID symptom ) with medication.
“I always tell folks just don’t get frustrated,” Lago said. “If you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, keep looking.”
There are many doctors out there who can help with your long COVID symptoms and whole treatment centers that are working to help people get better.