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caption: Seattlites try to stay cool during a July 2022 heat wave by dipping in the water at Seward Park. Tuesday, July 26 hit a high of 94 degrees in Seattle, setting a new record.
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Seattlites try to stay cool during a July 2022 heat wave by dipping in the water at Seward Park. Tuesday, July 26 hit a high of 94 degrees in Seattle, setting a new record.
Credit: Paige Browning / KUOW

Extreme heat can exacerbate long Covid symptoms

Last week’s scorching temperatures created a range of challenges for people in the Seattle area, including for those experiencing long-term symptoms after a Covid-19 infection, known as long Covid.

“There absolutely is an impact of heat on our patients with long Covid,” said Dr. Janna Friedly, executive director of the UW Medicine Post-Covid Rehabilitation and Recovery Clinic.

Friedly said the heat tends to exacerbate symptoms for her patients.

Susie Rantz, a long covid patient at the post-covid clinic, said that was the case for her. She got Covid-19 very early in the pandemic, in March 2020. Rantz wasn’t hospitalized but she experienced severe chest pain, shortness of breath, a cough, and fatigue.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that tired in my life,” Rantz said.

She recovered. But the fatigue lingered, as did some other symptoms. Rantz now has issues with her autonomic nervous system, which regulates things like heart rate and blood pressure. As a result, when she stands, her body has a hard time moving blood back up to her brain.

“So now I have blood at my feet that’s not getting to my head, and a racing heart rate when I’m not even doing any exercising.”

When the heat wave hit this past week Rantz said everything got worse. The high temperatures meant bad headaches, more fatigue, and more breathing issues for her.

“I really, as much as possible, tried to sit down ... and tried to find really cool areas,” Rantz said.

Prior to Covid, Rantz didn’t have any health conditions. Now, she said, she has to pay much more attention to her body.

“Knowing that we’re going to have 90-degree temperatures in Seattle for years to come and that’s going to be regular, you have to just think a lot differently about what you can and can’t do,” Rantz said.

Things like a trip to the beach with friends wouldn’t have required much forethought before the pandemic.

Rantz said she’s lucky enough to have a window air conditioning unit in the bedroom, so she spent time last week sitting in bed right in front of it when she could.

But she’s aware not everyone has an AC unit to camp out in front of, and some people have more severe long Covid symptoms.

Millions of Americans are estimated to be experiencing long Covid. Friedly said that number is likely to grow as highly contagious subvariants sweep through the country and more people become infected.

“You couple that with the changes in climate and more extreme heat that we're experiencing across the country, and across the world, and I think the issues are going to compound themselves,” she said. “It's extremely concerning to us."

Friedly said more research needs to be done on the direct relationship between long Covid and heat. But she said many of the things that may predispose someone to getting long Covid also put them at higher risk of heat-related illness.

At a broad level, Friedly said more people need to understand the link between viruses like Covid and changes to the climate.

“This, I think, is a warning that we need to really take seriously the effects of climate and understand how that impacts the development of new viral illnesses that may crop up.”

Friedly said she’d like to see more training in the medical community on the relationship between heat, climate changes, and health.