Long COVID: How Speech Therapy Helps People Who Have Long-Term Symptoms

After more than two years of a global pandemic, we are just beginning to learn about the long-term effects of COVID-19. With a virus that can impact each person differently, there is much research to be done. That’s especially true in the area of long COVID, also known as long-haul COVID.

In 2021, the World Health Organization defined the “post COVID-19 condition” (or long COVID) as the persistence of COVID symptoms, or development of new symptoms, 3 months after the onset of COVID-19. The virus can affect functioning in areas such as breathing, cognition, voice, and swallowing. In this article, we’ll discuss how speech therapy can help treat and rehabilitate these long-term COVID symptoms. There is hope, and healing is possible.

What are the symptoms of long COVID?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 older adults who survived COVID have at least one persistent symptom. These symptoms can last weeks, months, or longer. 

The symptoms of long COVID can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and loss of taste and smell. 

How can long COVID affect your speech and voice? 

Some symptoms of long COVID impact cognitive and linguistic abilities, or areas related to thinking and speaking. These post-COVID symptoms include:

  • Brain fog 

  • Problems with memory 

  • Reduced ability to remember new information 

  • Trouble finding the right words

  • Difficulty staying on topic in conversation 

  • Losing your “train of thought” 

  • Difficulty paying attention

Voice and breathing difficulties following COVID-19 may include: 

  • Swollen and inflamed vocal cords from repetitive coughing

  • Labored breathing

  • Difficult or painful swallowing

  • Emotional trauma related to your medical experiences, which is closely linked to voice production 

If it’s been 6 to 8 weeks since your COVID symptoms started and your voice hasn’t returned to normal, or you have throat pain or difficulty swallowing, contact your primary doctor. You may need to see an otolaryngologist or an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist). If you’re having difficulty breathing, seek medical care right away.

Can speech therapy help with long COVID speech problems?

Speech-language pathologists, also known as speech therapists, are professionals trained to help with a variety of communication, cognitive, and swallowing difficulties. Speech therapy for voice, breathing, cognition, language, and swallowing has been documented to improve the quality of life for those dealing with long COVID. 

Speech therapy has been documented to improve quality of life for those with long COVID.

There are two forms of speech therapy that can help people with long COVID voice and speech problems:

1 Cognitive rehabilitation

In the area of cognitive and linguistic difficulties, cognitive rehabilitation can provide tools and exercises to help people improve their memory, word finding, focus, and attention. 

2 Respiratory muscle strength training (RMST)

Respiratory muscle strength training is a form of resistance training used to strengthen the muscles used for breathing. RMST can improve overall health, increase oxygen to the brain, and support a stronger voice and improved swallowing.

Emotional recovery and vocal recovery often progress hand-in-hand. Your speech therapist will provide a holistic and integrative approach to regaining your speech and healing your voice. 

What does speech therapy look like for someone with speech problems post-COVID? 

With online speech therapy, you attend one-on-one sessions with a speech therapist from the comfort of home, at a time that works for you. You’ll receive weekly practice activities and support between sessions to help you reach your cognitive, linguistic, voice, or breathing goals.

The first session is a comprehensive evaluation. During the evaluation, your speech therapist will take a holistic look at your communication needs, then provide you with a treatment plan and goals. Each session will target specific, individualized goals to help improve your breathing, voice quality, or cognitive difficulties. 

Living with long COVID can cause uncertainty, frustration, and fear. If you or someone you love has long COVID symptoms that are affecting communication, reach out to a certified speech therapist today.

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