Long-Term Effects of COVID: What People from All Age Groups Should Know

On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the first travel-related case of COVID-19 within the United States. Just 7 weeks later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As COVID-19 spread throughout the world in early 2020, there were many unanswered questions about how COVID-19 spreads, what symptoms look like, and potential long-term effects.

Fortunately, healthcare professionals are now able to provide greater clarity around many aspects of COVID-19, including long-lasting symptoms and permanent effects of the disease. Currently the CDC reports, “People with COVID-19 have had a wide range of symptoms reported—ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness. Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.”

COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Patients present with varying degrees of COVID-19 syndrome ranging from asymptomatic to mild to moderate to severe symptoms. The CDC also explains the impact of comorbidities, for example, “Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.”

Although the CDC states that symptoms of COVID-19 can occur between 2 to 14 days, some individuals experience symptoms lasting for weeks and even months. Individuals that experience symptoms of COVID-19 for an extended period of time are known as “long haulers.” Additionally, some individuals have experienced after-effects of COVID-19.

In this blog post, we discuss the current information that is available from the medical community surrounding COVID-19 long haulers and COVID-19 lasting effects.

COVID-19 Long Haulers

According to UC Davis Health, there is a huge diversity in patients experiencing long-term effects of COVID-19, also known as long haulers. Long-term effects of COVID-19 can appear in patients that have been hospitalized for a long period of time or even those who have mild symptoms and recover at home. Long haulers appear in areas that have large amounts of COVID-19 cases as well as those regions that are less affected. In other words, there seems to be a random distribution of long haulers throughout the US.

Long-term effects of COVID-19 can appear in any individual, even those that are young and healthy. Although an individual can recover at home and test negatively, there still may be lingering effects. An article published by the Journal of American Medical Association, reports “approximately 10% of people who’ve had COVID-19 experience prolonged symptoms.”

Since health care providers are still unsure of what factors can lead to prolonged symptoms and side effects of COVID-19, people of all ages should remain extremely cautious. An article regarding long-term effects of COVID-19 recently published by the Cleveland Clinic states, “Our experience shows most long haulers tend to fall into the high risk category, but there’s also a growing percentage of people who were otherwise healthy before they became infected. From what we know so far, it still seems random as to who experiences these long-lasting symptoms and who doesn’t.”

Long-Term Effects and Symptoms of COVID-19

The CDC is actively working to learn more about the varieties of short and long-term side effects on those that have been infected with the coronavirus. Within the past year, there has been an emergence of medical data showing healthcare experts that several organs in the body are affected by COVID-19–the heart, liver and lungs to name a few.

Currently, there are several multi-year studies that are  examining long-term effects of COVID-19. These studies hope to clarify what specific symptoms are associated with long-term effects of COVID-19, who is most likely to get these symptoms, and whether or not these symptoms will subside in the future and/or allow for future complications. 

According to the CDC, these are the most commonly reported long-term symptoms of COVID-19: 

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain

Other reported long-term symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with thinking and concentration (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Depression
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Intermittent fever
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)

Additionally, the CDC has reported that there are more serious (albeit less common) long-term complications that could appear as a result of COVID-19. These long-term side effects have been reported to affect various organ systems in the body. 

The following organ systems can be affected, according to the CDC:

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart
  • Respiratory: abnormalities in lung function
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Integumentary: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological/Psychiatric: issues with smell and taste, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems, depression, anxiety, changes in mood

The information reported above has been gathered from the CDC website and as new medical research and discoveries emerge in regards to the long-term effects of COVID-19 the items above are subject to change. To ensure that you are up-to-date on all of the latest public health information regarding the long-term side effects of COVID-19, please be sure to examine the latest publications of the CDC. Click here to learn more. 

Organ Damage Caused by COVID-19

Although COVID-19 is a respiratory virus and primarily affects the lungs, the Mayo Clinic reports potential side effects and damage to several major organs within the body. These side effects may increase the individual’s risk of serious long-term complications. 

The organs that may be affected by COVID-19 include:

The Heart

Recent medical data provided by the Mayo Clinic finds that some patients may experience lasting damage to the myocardium, the muscles of the heart. Health experts state, “imaging tests taken months after recovery from COVID-19 have shown lasting damage to the heart muscle, even in people who experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms. This may increase the risk of heart failure or other heart complications in the future.”

The Lungs

Reports from the Mayo Clinic also show that there may be long-term damage associated with pneumonia and damage to air ducts that are caused by COVID-19. Experts have stated, “the type of pneumonia often associated with COVID-19 can cause long-standing damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The resulting scar tissue can lead to long-term breathing problems.”

The Brain

Health experts also note that no matter the age of the individual, there have been reports of long-term effects on the brain. The Mayo Clinic reports, “Even in young people, COVID-19 can cause strokes, seizures and Guillain-Barre syndrome—a condition that causes temporary paralysis. COVID-19 may also increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Blood Clots and Blood Vessel Problems Caused by COVID-19

Additional reports from the Mayo Clinic have noted that COVID-19 can make blood cells more likely to clump up and form clots. Large clots are known to cause heart attacks (resulting from a blood clot in the body) and strokes (resulting from a blood clot in the brain) in individuals.

In addition to blood clots affecting the heart, they can also be found in the lungs, legs, liver and kidneys. An article published by the Mayo Clinic that addresses the long-term effects of COVID-19 states, “COVID-19 can also weaken blood vessels and cause them to leak, which contributes to potentially long-lasting problems with the liver and kidneys.”

Problems with Mood and Fatigue Caused by COVID-19

For individuals who have had severe cases of COVID-19 resulting in hospitalization and an extended stay in the intensive care unit (ICU), many are placed on ventilators to help them breath. The Mayo Clinic reports that simply surviving this type of experience can lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety.

Some of the conclusions pertaining to long-term effects and health outcomes resulting from the infection of the coronavirus have been drawn by also examining related viruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Studies that have examined those who have recovered from SARS have determined that many of those individuals have developed chronic fatigue syndrome. The Mayo Clinic defines this as “a complex disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that worsens with physical or mental activity, but doesn’t improve with rest.” Although still unknown, the same may be true for those who recover from COVID-19.

Avoiding Long-Term Effects of COVID-19

According to the CDC, in order to prevent a long-hauler case of COVID-19 (i.e. long-term effects of COVID-19) and any of the health conditions mentioned above, individuals should do the following: “Wear a mask in public places, stay at least 6 feet away from other people, frequently wash your hands, and avoid crowds and confined or poorly ventilated spaces.” 

The best way to prevent yourself from falling into the long hauler category and mitigate risk of long-term effects and potentially severe health risks in the future is to avoid contracting COVID-19 altogether. As healthcare professionals have not yet determined what exactly causes long-term side effects of COVID-19, it’s vital that every individual remain cautious and follow city, state, and federal guidelines related to protecting yourself and those around you.

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