On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In recent months, COVID has drawn another large-scale health crisis into the pile of pandemic-generated problems. The second decade of the twenty-first century had already familiarized most people with the “opioid epidemic”—a sharp climb in opioid addictions due to careless use of prescription painkillers since the 1990s, and to subsequent demand for heroin and fentanyl to further satisfy addiction-induced opioid cravings. Rising awareness of the addiction problem led to a steady decline in opioid prescriptions from 2012 to 2019: then the COVID pandemic hit. And in its wake came another health concern: the phenomenon of COVID long haulers.
Long COVID and COVID Long Haulers
The majority of people who contract COVID-19 will not become seriously ill: many never even show symptoms, and most others recover at home within a few weeks. It’s no secret, of course, that millions still have required hospitalization or even died. But what’s received less attention is that 10 to 30 percent will become “long haulers” by developing the further complication of “long COVID,” where debilitating symptoms linger for weeks or months after the virus itself is gone.
Long-COVID symptoms may include loss of smell/taste, “brain fog,” seizures, heart or breathing dysfunction, severe inflammation, gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, chronic fatigue or muscle/bone pain. It’s unclear just what causes long COVID or who is at risk: while age and preexisting health conditions are known contributors, the condition has been diagnosed in overall healthy people who had minor symptoms from the virus itself. Some may never recover completely (since COVID is still a new virus, statistics on that are as yet unavailable).
Right now, however, long haulers suffering pain symptoms are facing the threat of another long-lasting illness. As noted above, the best-known use of opioid medications is for pain relief, but so many people became addicted to those medications that, pre-pandemic, doctors were increasingly reluctant to prescribe them. But now, prescription frequency is showing signs of rising again as doctors and patients turn to opioid painkillers for long COVID symptoms.
The Perils of Painkillers
Many medical experts advise against using opioids for any long-term condition: the addiction risk is too high. Physical tolerance develops quickly, triggering thoughts of “I need a bigger dose because this one isn’t working anymore.” One in four patients who are prescribed opioid medication for chronic pain go outside prescription directions, and one in 10 develop opioid use disorder. One in 20 people who misuse prescription opioids will eventually turn to heroin.
Adding further to the concern is that many prescription and street drugs contain fentanyl, which has 50 times the potency of heroin and is often mixed with black-market heroin, increasing the risk of accidental overdose. Opioid pain pills may seem like easy relief, but unless managed with extreme caution, they’re often an easy path into the nightmare of a life (and perhaps death) centered on getting more drugs at all costs.
Covid Long Haulers with Pain Symptoms: What to Do
The best way to deal with long COVID is to prevent it by following CDC guidelines to avoid contracting anything COVID: get vaccinated against the virus, avoid crowds and wear a face mask in public venues. If, however, you’re among the unfortunate ones who developed COVID-19 and then long COVID after an infection slipped past your precautions—or if you contracted COVID and became a long hauler before clear guidelines or vaccines were available—you don’t have to choose between living in agony and risking the complementary agony of opioid addiction. You can:
- First of all, have a serious talk with your doctor about opioid risks.
- Consider drug-free pain management options such as mindfulness coaching, yoga or acupuncture.
- If you do get a prescription, take it strictly according to directions (preferably including a “last dose” date) and inform your doctor promptly if you see dependence symptoms Be especially vigilant if your prescription contains fentanyl.
- Take care of your overall health: get extra rest, eat healthy (even if impaired smell and taste keep you from enjoying food to the fullest) and do whatever you can to minimize stress.
And don’t despair: most long-COVID patients do get better. You can come out of it without a second long-term problem.
Long-Haul Care for Substance Use Disorder
However addictions start or whatever substances they involve, Cumberland Heights understands that full recovery is a lifelong process. To help our clients prepare for long, healthy and sober lives post-detox, our Men’s Extended Care program provides daily guidance and peer support, plus time to plan for the long term before returning to “life on the outside.” We also provide treatment in every other stage of detox and early recovery, so if addiction is a problem in your family, contact us for help today!