In September 2021, I collapsed from exhaustion.
My vision became blurry. Then my eyelids got so heavy I could barely hold them down for milliseconds at a time. Panicking, I stumbled about 50 yards towards a close friend and collapsed onto her shoulders. She guided me to a shady spot under a tree, where I floated in and out of consciousness for about two hours.
As far as I can tell, I was a healthy male in my late twenties with no known risk of major health issues. I noted it as a single piece. But over the next few months, at unpredictable times on random days, I hit a wall – going from perfectly fine to lying in a fetal position with a crushing headache, in the snap of a finger.
My friends and family finally convinced me to see a doctor. A wide array of blood tests later, my diagnosis came back: severe vitamin D deficiency and cholesterol. According to my doctor, both issues were pretty easy to relate to the sedentary lifestyle I had been living since March 2020 – not going out or exercising nearly as often as before Covid.
Curious to know if I was on my own, I spoke with half a dozen medical experts in fields ranging from internal medicine and oncology to dermatology and podiatry. All said that over the past few months they had seen an increase in health problems that did not involve contracting the Covid-19 virus, but were nonetheless caused by the pandemic.
And some people’s experiences are much worse than mine.
Many forms of medical screenings on the ground at a standstill when Covid hit, so some doctors are now diagnosing more advanced forms of cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases than before Covid. The same treatment delays, along with a wide variety of pandemic stressors, have also led to more diagnoses of mood disorders, anxiety and substance abuse.
“We see this across a wide range of ages,” Dr Erica Johnson, chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine’s infectious disease specialty board, told CNBC Make It. “We’re seeing teenagers and children affected, and we’re seeing a lot of adults and older adults as well. I think it’s a real problem and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.”
Weight gain, stress and higher than average levels of alcohol consumption contribute to the increase in heart disease. This same weight gain is also correlated with long-term or permanent mobility issues, such as collapsed arches and severe forms of Achilles tendonitis.
New exercise routines and pent-up energy in the early months of the pandemic led to stress fractures and other overuse injuries. Working barefoot all day while telecommuting leads to blisters, broken toes, and structural problems with tendons in the foot and ankle. (I write this, a little embarrassed, at home in my socks.)
“I don’t necessarily see a lot more patients – but what I do see is greater severity. It seems to be much more advanced by the time patients come to see me,” says Dr. Sean Peden, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. “The severity and the frequency are increasing, which makes me think that these are people who are probably hurting themselves more because of the indirect causes of the pandemic.”
Lots of mask wearing can lead to rashes, acne, and dryness behind the ears. Frequent washing and disinfecting of hands can lead to rashes or eczema. Even my vitamin D deficiency and high cholesterol are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, weakened bones and immune system disorders.
The latter is particularly uncomfortable to hear during a global pandemic.
It’s a long list, and probably incomplete. “If, in fact, Covid causes a slight increase in cancer mortality – and I think it probably will – that is not something that we will be able to detect statistically for another year or two,” says Dr. Eric Winer, director of the Yale Cancer Center. “We may have much better research and much more accurate statistics on what is really happening in one, two, three years.”
So what can we do about it now?
Learning to live with the side effects of the pandemic
Even once Covid wears off, some of the root causes will likely remain. Pandemic stress can survive the pandemic itself. Remote work is here to stay, in one form or another. Mask-wearing could become seasonal and doctors will probably never recommend less hand washing.
Just like we are learning to live with Covid in the long term, we will have to learn to live with the non-viral effects of the pandemic, says Johnson. In some cases, that means resuming your pre-Covid health routines. Again make annual visits to the ophthalmologist and dentist. Go back to annual mammograms and routine vaccinations. Consider mental health screenings on a semi-regular basis.
In other cases, you may need to form new habits. Peden, for example, recommends five to 10 minutes of hamstring and calf stretches a day, and indoor shoes for anyone working from home. “You want it to be comfortable, but comfort is secondary to protection,” he says. “If it flexes like a sock or if it’s soft like one of those slippers that looks like a stuffed animal, it doesn’t really protect your feet.”
Likewise, if your skin is suffering after two years of Covid precautions, the solution is not to stop wearing masks or washing your hands, points out Dr Sarika Ramachandran, associate professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. If anything, she says, those struggles mean you’re likely at risk for deeper skin dryness issues — and moisturizing your face and hands more often will likely solve both problems.
And if you’re like me, swallow your pride and ask your doctor about your personal situation – even if you think everything is fine. My fatigue was a slow burn: until I spoke with my doctor, I hadn’t fully realized how much my daily endurance had diminished.
When he prescribed me 50,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D3 per week—a huge amount, relatively speaking—he looked at me with his eyebrows raised above his mask. “You’ll be back to your normal, bouncing back in no time,” he said wryly.
I laughed, because I didn’t usually feel listless or low on energy. But the morning after taking that comically overdosed first pill, I immediately felt the difference. It was, without exaggeration, like day and night.
I felt like myself again.
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