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The Awful COVID-19 Symptom No One is Talking About

Shortness of breath is just the start.
Exhausted doctor / nurse taking of coronavirus protective gear N95 mask uniform

You've read the headlines: Symptoms of the coronavirus include shortness of breath, a dry cough and fever, among others—and then there are more atypical ones, like "COVID toes" (a rash) and pink eye. But there is one symptom the media is talking far less about, and it's the one that may last the longest: mental illness.

COVID-19 can cause delirium "in a significant proportion of patients in the acute stage," says a new report in The Lancet, resulting in what the Mayo Clinic calls "a serious disturbance in mental abilities that results in confused thinking and reduced awareness of the environment. The start of delirium," it goes on, "is usually rapid — within hours or a few days."

The longer-term effects are just as worrisome—delirium or not, COVID-19 can seriously affect your mental health.

The Long-Term Impact on You

That same study in The Lancet compared the coronavirus (also dubbed SARS-CoV-2) to previous coronaviruses. "If infection with SARS-CoV-2 follows a similar course to that with SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV, most patients should recover without experiencing mental illness," the authors wrote, however: "Clinicians should be aware of the possibility of depression, anxiety, fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder, and rarer neuropsychiatric syndromes in the longer term."

"The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil—they all cause or could cause psychological distress," sais Devora Kestel, director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) mental health department, when presenting a UN report and policy guidance on COVID-19 and mental health. Survivors of the virus may also feel shocked by time in intensive care, quarantine, or for being ostracised by their communities.

"With the number of people globally who are being admitted to hospital [and] admitted to intensive care units, I think we could see a lot of PTSD in the aftermath," said University College London psychiatrist and study co-author Jonathan Rogers. 

How to Deal With It All

If you're having a hard time dealing with COVID-19, here are tips and advice from WHO to help guide your next moves:

  • "Have a routine. Keep up with daily routines as far as possible, or make new ones.
  • Minimize newsfeeds. Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed.
  • Social contact is important. If your movements are restricted, keep in regular contact with people close to you by telephone and online channels.
  • Alcohol and drug use. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink or don't drink alcohol at all. Don't start drinking alcohol if you have not drunk alcohol before. Avoid using alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation.
  • Screen time. Be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities.
  • Social media. Use your social media accounts to promote positive and hopeful stories. Correct misinformation wherever you see it.
  • Help others. If you are able to, offer support to people in your community who may need it, such as helping them with food shopping.
  • Support health workers. Take opportunities online or through your community to thank your country's health-care workers and all those working to respond to COVID-19."
  • See here the complete list of advice from the WHO.

And be assured that although it seems like no one is talking about this, the issue is starting to get worldwide attention. "It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a UN policy brief recently. "A failure to take people's emotional well-being seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society." 

As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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