There have been more than half a billion confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide.
In addition, new and more contagious variants that can potentially elude immunity are still being discovered.
For most healthy people, you can expect COVID-19 symptoms to lastTrusted Source two weeks or less. However, it’s estimatedTrusted Source that in about 20 percent of COVID-19 cases, symptoms persist for three months or longer.
When symptoms stick around for this length of time it’s called post-COVID condition, or long COVIDTrusted Source.
So far, effective treatments for long COVID symptoms have been elusive.
Now, a new studyTrusted Source details the potential of using hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) and how successful it might be.
In it for the long haul
The typical symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, sore throat, cough, and a loss of taste and smell — are not necessarily the same as the symptoms of long COVID.
People with long COVID — sometimes called “long haulers” — can have symptoms that range from the physical to the cognitive.
Physically, people with long COVID might feel:
From a cognitive perspective, you might experience:
symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Long COVID can also result in decreased executive functions, impacting the ability to stay on task, remember new information, or regulate emotions.
“Long COVID is a still poorly understood syndrome,” Dr. Thomas Gut, the director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Healthline.
“It’s a broad syndrome that involves many different symptoms but does commonly present with fatigue and brain fog,” he added.
Dr. Fady Youssef, a pulmonologist, internist, and critical care specialist at MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center in California, agreed.
“Long COVID is yet to become a well-understood entity,” Youssef told Healthline. “There is a lot of investigation into how to better understand how it occurs, how to diagnose it, and how to manage it.”
Being vaccinated against COVID-19 can help decrease the risk of contracting the disease and it might also help if you develop long COVID.
“Vaccinated individuals who suffer breakthrough infections seem to have a lower incidence of post-COVID disorders,” said Youssef.
But once you already have long COVID symptoms, what can be done?
What is HBOT?
To answer this question, we return to HBOT.
In a nutshell, HBOTTrusted Source means breathing 100% pure oxygen at increased air pressure. This helps the body to collect more oxygen and use it to heal damage or fight infection.
“Traditionally, hyperbaric oxygen therapy was used to treat divers who are affected by the rapid change in pressure around them,” said Youssef.
This is called decompression sicknessTrusted Source, but you may know it as the “bends.”
“Its use has been expanded to many other areas, including carbon monoxide poisoning, diabetic wound infections, burns, and many others. When used in the proper setting, it is safe and complications are rare,” Youssef said.
In their recent study, researchers reported that HBOT improved many long COVID symptoms for people who had the condition, including:
decreased executive function
“The study itself appears well-designed and has reasonable conclusions,” Gut said.
That doesn’t mean that the results are definitive though.
“The study is fairly small,” noted Gut.
“I would like to see further studies confirming its findings before endorsing it for widespread use,” Youssef agreed.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also cautionsTrusted Source about being overly optimistic about treating COVID-19 or long COVID with HBOT, noting that studies are ongoing and that this is not currently an FDA-approved treatment.
Access and safety
If HBOT were to be approved, availability might be a bottleneck that prevents people from getting the treatment.
“Hyperbaric therapy is not very common, nor do most hospitals have the chambers available on site. It’s used more frequently in some outpatient wound healing programs but would not be able to handle the extensive population of people currently suffering from long COVID,” said Gut.
And before you set about making your own oxygen chamber — but don’t — remember that these are federally regulated for a reason.
The FDA notes that unregulated oxygen therapy has led to explosions, fires, and suffocation.
And while oxygen bars have gained popularity in recent years, these are recreational in nature and not without their own risks.
“I would not equate oxygen bars to hyperbaric oxygen therapy,” Youssef said.
“Unfortunately, there are no easy alternatives to hyperbaric chambers. These chambers are designed to safely and precisely bring a patient into a high pressure and high oxygen environment,” Gut said.
HBOT shows some early promise to help with long COVID symptoms. However, if you already have long COVID, you might want to talk to your doctor about other treatments.