Long COVID 101: What is it, and What Are the Health Risks?

Key Takeaways
  • Thanks to vaccines, boosters, and more treatments coming to market, most people who get infected by COVID-19 today won’t become hospitalized or die. But there are a lot of looming questions around “long COVID” that researchers are still trying to figure out.

  • This condition involves a wide range of debilitating problems in the heart, brain, lungs, gut, and other organs. Symptoms may appear approximately three months after infection, and they could stick around for up to six months after recovery. In some rare and very severe cases, there are individuals who have symptoms that do not go away. 

  • There is still little known about risk factors associated with long COVID. There is also no one-size-fits-all treatment. Since symptoms may differ from person to person, treatments are personalized on a case-by-case basis.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there have been reports of people experiencing ongoing symptoms after initial infection — anywhere from a few weeks to months. Additionally, these symptoms seem to be somewhat agnostic in how or why they show up. In other words, they aren’t only present in people that are critically ill or hospitalized; they can also occur in patients who had mild disease and never needed to be hospitalized while infected with COVID-19.[1]

New research indicates that as many as 50 percent of people who survive the virus experience a variety of long-term physical and psychological ailments after their initial recovery.[2]

What is long COVID?

Many people who become infected with COVID-19 recover within a few weeks, but others — even those who had mild versions of the disease — may continue to experience symptoms long after their initial infection.[3] Medical experts and the public have coined the term “long COVID-19” to describe cases with new, recurring, or continuing symptoms that last four or more weeks after infection.

According to a new report, long COVID (also called post-acute COVID-19, chronic COVID, or long-haul COVID, late sequelae and others) may affect more than half of the 236 million people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) worldwide.[4]

What are the symptoms of long COVID?

Currently, long COVID conditions represent a wide range of health consequences and symptoms. Though researchers are still investigating prevalence, mechanism, duration, and severity of conditions and symptoms associated with long COVID, here are some of the most common symptoms of long COVID reported by the CDC:

  • New or Ongoing Symptoms: These can affect patients recovered from mild, asymptomatic, or severe COVID-19. Symptoms may include:
    • Labored breathing
    • Fatigue
    • Cough
    • Headache
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Joint stiffness
    • Muscle pain
    • Insomnia
    • Brain fog
    • Fever
    • Impaired daily function and mobility
    • Discoloration and swelling on hands or feet
  • Blood Clots or Blood Vessel Problems: COVID-19 can cause severe inflammation, which can trigger the body’s clotting system. And when you’re sick with COVID-19 or following stay-at-home orders, immobility paired with inflammation creates a perfect storm and greater risk for blood clots.[5]
  • Multiorgan System Effects: Multiorgan system effects of long COVID have been shown to affect the cardiovascular, pulmonary, renal, dermatologic, neurologic, and psychiatric body systems, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS) and autoimmune conditions.
  • Mental Health Disorders: A recent study found that a third of COVID-19 patients had been diagnosed with neurological or psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psychosis, in the 6 months after they contracted COVID-19.[6]
  • Effects of COVID-19 Illness or Hospitalization: Severe illness and hospitalization due to COVID-19 can result in effects similar to those from hospitalization for other respiratory infections or conditions, including:
    • Tracheal stenosis (the narrowing or constriction of the tracheal airway, which can make it difficult to breathe normally)
    • Severe weakness
    • Deconditioning, or physiological changes following a period of bedrest that can interfere with daily activities
    • Post-intensive care syndrome (PICS)
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

It’s important to note that people with long COVID can experience an overlap of these conditions and don’t necessarily fall into just one category or the other.

Who is most at risk for long COVID?

Currently, little is known about prevalence or risk factors for long COVID, but early analysis of patient data suggests that older age, being female, and being overweight could make someone more vulnerable to long COVID. The number of symptoms a patient initially has during when they contract COVID may also play a factor. With that said, none of these risk factors are considered absolute.

What treatments are available for long COVID?

There are currently no known or one-size-fits-all treatments for long COVID. Some clinics across the nation are taking a coordinated multidisciplinary approach — including a rehabilitation physician, an internist, a psychiatrist, a neuropsychologist, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist — to help put patients on a path to recovery. Because each person’s symptoms may differ, treatment is highly individualized and depends on what the patient is experiencing, as well as the severity.

The Importance of Long COVID Prevention

Studies show that being fully vaccinated (against COVID-19) not only reduces the likelihood of becoming infected, but it also minimizes the risk of experiencing long COVID symptoms after an infection occurs.[8]

Over the past year, we have made great progress in delivering COVID vaccines efficiently and at scale across the United States. Nearly 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 70% of the country’s population has received their first dose.[9] About 1.5 million are being administered every day — a number has grown since the FDA authorized booster shots as well as vaccines for children ages 5-11.

In medicine, the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true. In this case, getting vaccinated can save lives and help us all create a path out of this pandemic.

References

  1. Long COVID (Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS CoV-2 infection, PASC). (2021, August 6). Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/long-covid-post-acute-sequelae-of-sars-cov-2-infection-pasc
  2. Groff, D., Sun, A., Ssentongo, A. E., Ba, D. M., Parsons, N., Poudel, G. R., Lekoubou, A., Oh, J. S., Ericson, J. E., Ssentongo, P., & Chinchilli, V. M. (2021). Short-term and Long-term Rates of Postacute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection. JAMA Network Open, 4(10), e2128568. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.28568
  3. COVID-19 (coronavirus): Long-term effects. (2021, October 22). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-long-term-effects/art-20490351
  4. How many people get “long COVID”? More than half, researchers find: Half of COVID survivors experience lingering symptoms six months after recovery. (2021, October 13). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/10/211013114112.htm
  5. Kurtzman, L. (2021, April 23). Why COVID-19 could be causing blood clots—and what you can do to lower your risk. Ohio State Medical Center. https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/blood-clots-covid
  6. Schreiber, M. (2021, July). Treating patients with long COVID. Monitor on Psychology, 52(5). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/07/treating-long-covid
  7. Melba Newsome. (2021, June 30). New Long-Haul COVID Clinics Treat Mysterious and Ongoing Symptoms. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-long-haul-covid-clinics-treat-mysterious-and-ongoing-symptoms/
  8. Antonelli, M., Penfold, R. S., Merino, J., Sudre, C. H., Molteni, E., Berry, S., Canas, L. S., Graham, M. S., Klaser, K., Modat, M., Murray, B., Kerfoot, E., Chen, L., Deng, J., ÖSterdahl, M. F., Cheetham, N. J., Drew, D. A., Nguyen, L. H., Pujol, J. C., . . . Steves, C. J. (2021). Risk factors and disease profile of post-vaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection in UK users of the COVID Symptom Study app: a prospective, community-based, nested, case-control study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Published. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1473-3099(21)00460-6
  9. Mathieu, E., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E., Roser, M., Hasell, J., Appel, C., Giattino, C., & Rodés-Guirao, L. (2021). A global database of COVID-19 vaccinations. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(7), 947–953. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01122-8

DISCLAIMER: This article is for general information purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be relied upon for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, dial 911 immediately.