In an Instagram post, the Girls creator shared the details of her bout with COVID-19 in March, plus the long-term symptoms she’s experienced since then.

By Allie Strickler
August 03, 2020
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Lena Dunham attends Broadway opening night of "Betrayal" at The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on September 5, 2019 in New York City
Credit: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images

Five months into the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there are still so many questions about the virus. Case in point: The World Health Organization (WHO) recently warned that a COVID-19 infection may lead to lasting health consequences, such as long-term breathing difficulties or even heart damage.

While researchers are still learning more about COVID-19’s long-term effects, Lena Dunham is coming forward to speak about them from personal experience. Over the weekend, the actor shared an Instagram post detailing not only her bout with coronavirus in March, but also the long-term symptoms she’s experienced since clearing the infection.

“I got sick with COVID-19 in mid-March,” shared Dunham. Her initial symptoms included achy joints, “a pounding headache,” fever, “a hacking cough,” loss of taste and smell, and “an impossible, crushing fatigue,” she explained. These are many of the usual coronavirus symptoms you've heard repeated over and over.

“This went on for 21 days, days that blended into each other like a rave gone wrong,” wrote Dunham. “I was lucky enough to have a doctor who could offer me regular guidance on how to care for myself and I never had to be hospitalized. This kind of hands-on attention is a privilege that is far too unusual in our broken healthcare system.”

After a month with the infection, Dunham tested negative for COVID-19, she continued. “I couldn’t believe how intense the loneliness had been, in addition to the illness,” she added. (Related: How to Deal with Loneliness If You’re Self-Isolated During the Coronavirus Outbreak)

However, even after testing negative for the virus, Dunham continued to have inexplicable, lingering symptoms, she wrote. “I had swollen hands and feet, an unceasing migraine, and fatigue that limited my every move,” she explained.

Despite dealing with chronic illness for much of her adult life (including endometriosis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome), Dunham shared that she’d still “never felt this way.” She said her doctor soon determined she was experiencing clinical adrenal insufficiency—a disorder that happens when your adrenal glands (located on top of your kidneys) don’t produce enough of the hormone cortisol, leading to weakness, abdominal pain, fatigue, low blood pressure, and skin hyperpigmentation, among other symptoms—as well as “status migrainosis,” which describes any migraine episode that lasts longer than 72 hours. (Related: Everything to Know About Adrenal Fatigue and the Adrenal Fatigue Diet)

“And there are weirder symptoms that I’ll keep to myself,” wrote Dunham. “To be clear, I did NOT have these particular issues before I got sick with this virus and doctors don’t yet know enough about COVID-19 to be able to tell me why exactly my body responded this way or what my recovery will look like.”

At this point, experts know very little about the potential long-term health effects of COVID-19. “When we say that the vast majority of people have a mild illness and recover, that is true," Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said at a recent press conference, according to U.S. News & World Report. "But what we cannot say, at the moment, is what are the potential long-term impacts of having had that infection.”

Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that “relatively little is known” about the possible long-term health implications of even a mild bout with COVID-19. In a recent multistate phone survey of nearly 300 symptomatic adults who tested positive for COVID-19, the CDC found that 35 percent of respondents said they hadn’t returned to their usual health at the time of the survey (roughly 2-3 weeks after testing positive). For context, the average duration of a mild COVID-19 infection—from onset to recovery—is two weeks (for “severe or critical disease,” it can be as long as 3-6 weeks), according to WHO.

In the CDC’s survey, those who hadn’t returned to usual health after 2-3 weeks most commonly reported continued struggles with fatigue, cough, headache, and shortness of breath. Moreover, people with pre-existing chronic health conditions were more likely than people with no chronic illnesses to report having continued symptoms 2-3 weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the survey’s results. (Related: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus and Immune Deficiencies)

Some research even points to far more serious long-term health effects of COVID-19, including possible heart damage; blood clots and stroke; lung damage; and neurological symptoms (such as headaches, dizziness, seizure, and impaired balance and consciousness, among other cognitive issues).

While the science is still emerging, there's no shortage of firsthand accounts of these long-term effects. "There are social media groups that have formed, with thousands of patients, who specifically are suffering prolonged symptoms from having had COVID-19," notes Scott Braunstein, M.D., medical director at Sollis Health. "These people have been referred to as 'long haulers,' and the symptoms have been named 'post-COVID syndrome.'"

As for Dunham’s experience with lingering post-COVID symptoms, she recognized the privilege she has in her ability to manage and be treated for these new health issues. “I know I am lucky; I have amazing friends and family, exceptional healthcare, and a flexible job where I can ask for the support I need to perform,” she shared in her Instagram post. “BUT not everybody has such luck, and I am posting this because of those people. I wish I could hug them all.” (Related: How to Cope with COVID-19 Stress When You Can’t Stay Home)

Even though Dunham said she was initially “reluctant” to add her perspective to the “noisy landscape” of coronavirus, she felt “compelled to be honest” about how the virus has affected her. “Personal stories allow us to see the humanity in what can feel like abstract situations,” she wrote.

Concluding her post, Dunham implored her Instagram followers to keep stories like hers in mind as you navigate life during the pandemic.

“When you take the appropriate measures to protect yourself and your neighbors, you save them a world of pain,” she wrote. “You save them a journey that nobody deserves to take, with a million outcomes we don’t yet understand, and a million people with varying resources and varying levels of support who are not ready for this tidal wave to take them. It is critical we are all sensible and compassionate at this time...because, there is truly no other choice.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.