July 22, 2022 – Emma Sherman, a 13-year-old girl in Ascot, United Kingdom, woke up to a dizzying aura of blind spots and flashing lights in her field of vision. It was May 2020, and she also had crippling nausea and headaches. By August, her dizziness was so overwhelming, she couldn’t hold her head up, lying in her mother’s lap for hours, too fatigued to attend school.
The former competitive gymnast, who had hoped to try out for the cheerleading squad, now used a wheelchair and was a shadow of her former self. She had been diagnosed with COVID-induced postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a condition often caused by an infection that results in a higher heart rate, extreme nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.
“I was so into sports before I got long COVID, and afterwards I could barely walk,” Emma says.
Even minor movements sent her heart rate sky-high. Her long chestnut hair turned gray and fell out in clumps. In the hospital, she was pricked and prodded, her blood tested for numerous conditions.
“They ran every scan known to man and took an MRI of her brain,” says Emma’s mother, Marie Sherman. “All was clear.”
Emma’s pediatrician determined that the teen had long COVID after having had a mild case of the virus in March, about 2 months before her puzzling symptoms began. But beyond a positive antibody test, doctors have found little evidence of what was causing Emma’s symptoms.
For Emma and others with long COVID, there are no medications shown to directly target the condition. Instead, caregivers target their symptoms, which include nausea, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and a racing heart, says Laura Malone, MD, co-director of the Pediatric Post-COVID-19 Rehabilitation Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
“Right now, it’s a rehabilitation-based approach focused on improving symptoms and functioning so that kids can go back to their usual activities as much as possible,” she says.
Depression and anxiety are common, although doctors are struggling to figure out whether COVID is changing the brain or whether mental health symptoms result from all the life disruptions. There’s little research to show how may kids have depression because of headaches. Malone says about half of her patients at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s long COVID clinic are also dealing with mental health issues.
Patients with headaches, dizziness, and nausea are given pain and nausea medications and recommendations for a healthy diet with added fruits and vegetables, monounsaturated fats, lower sodium, unprocessed foods, and whole grains. Kids with irregular or racing heart rates are referred to cardiologists and potentially prescribed beta-blockers to treat their heart arrhythmias, while children with breathing problems may be referred to pulmonologists and those with depression to a psychiatrist.
Still, many patients like Emma go to their doctors with phantom symptoms that don’t show up on scans or blood tests.
“We’re not seeing any evidence of structural damage to the brain, for example,” says Malone. “When we do MRIs, they often come out normal.”
It’s possible that the virus lingers in some patients, says Rajeev Fernando, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a fellow at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, MA. Kids’ strong immune systems often fend off problems that can be noticed. But on the inside, dead fragments of the virus persist, floating in hidden parts of the body and activating the immune system long after the threat has passed.
The virus can be in the gut and in the brain, which may help explain why symptoms like brain fog and nausea can linger in children.
“The immune system doesn’t recognize whether fragments of the virus are dead or alive. It continues to think it’s fighting active COVID,” says Fernando.
There is little data on how long symptoms last, Fernando says, as well as how many kids get them and why some are more vulnerable than others. Some research has found that about 5% to 15% of children with COVID may get long COVID, but the statistics vary globally.
“Children with long COVID have largely been ignored. And while we’re talking about it now, we’ve got some work to do,” says Fernando.
As for Emma, she recovered in January of 2021, heading back to school and her friends, although her cardiologist advised her to skip gym classes.
“For the first time in months, I was feeling like myself again,” she says.
But the coronavirus found its way to Emma again. Although she was fully vaccinated in the fall of 2021, when the Omicron variant swept the world late that year, she was infected again.
“When the wave of Omicron descended, Emma was like a sitting duck,” her mother says.
She was bedridden with a high fever and cough. The cold-like symptoms eventually went away, but the issues in her gut stuck around. Since then, Emma has had extreme nausea, losing most of the weight she had gained back.
For her part, Maria has found solace in a group called Long COVID Kids, a nonprofit in Europe and the United States. The group is raising awareness about the condition in kids to increase funding, boost understanding, and improve treatment and outcomes.
“There’s nothing worse than watching your child suffer and not being able to do anything about it,” she says. “I tell Emma all the time: If I could just crawl in your body and take it, I would do it in a second.”
Emma is hoping for a fresh start with her family’s move in the coming weeks to Sotogrande in southern Spain.
“I miss the simplest things like going for a run, going to the fair with my friends, and just feeling well,” she says. “I have a long list of things I’ll do once this is all done.”