How COVID-19 Illness Can Impact Your Health Even After Recovery

By the bioMérieux Connection Editors

After severe or even mild COVID-19 illness, some people continue to suffer from symptoms for weeks and months after their initial recovery. These people may be considered “long haulers” with post-COVID-19 syndrome. Although they are not contagious, lingering symptoms can range from mild to severe and even otherwise healthy people can feel unwell for weeks to months after infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been working to learn more about the range of short-term and long-term symptoms and health effects associated with COVID-19. So far, we know that many organs besides the lungs can be affected and the infection can impact a person’s health during and after illness in many ways.

A study published in The Lancet in January shared the most common long-term symptoms of COVID-19. “At 6 months after acute infection, COVID-19 survivors were mainly troubled with fatigue or muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, and anxiety or depression,” the study stated. Patients who had more severe cases during their hospital stays suffered more severely from shortness of breath and were found to more commonly have abnormal chest imaging. However, other studies have found less of a correlation between severity of the illness and particular lingering symptoms and/or abnormal chest imaging.

A study conducted in Ireland and published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society noted that patients who had recovered from both mild and severe cases of COVID-19 had experienced similar lasting symptoms. Particularly, they also found that there was no correlation between abnormal imaging and severe disease. 75 days after their initial diagnosis, well over half of study participants said they had not yet returned to full health; however, only 4% showed signs of lung scarring on CT scans.

The lack of association between severe illness and ill health at day 75 highlights that “long-hauling” could be an issue for a large number of patients. “There appears to be a need for ongoing support and rehabilitation of patients experiencing long-term side-effects of COVID-19, including programs to optimize patient’s self-management of fatigue and perception of exertion post-COVID-19,” the study concludes.  

According to the World Health Organization, people who had either severe or mild illness may have symptoms that linger or recur for weeks or months following initial recovery. Additionally, some patients develop medical complications that may have lasting health effects. Resulting scar tissue in the lungs can lead to long-term breathing problems. COVID-19 can also cause strokes and seizures. It may also increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

According to the CDC, these are the most common symptoms that linger from COVID-19:

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

COVID-19 can have a lasting impact on many organs, and its impact on the brain is an area that scientists are conducting more research in. Early evidence has shown that many patients who are hospitalized and then discharged show symptoms of a brain injury. These are symptoms such as forgetfulness or the loss of ability to perform tasks that require organizing information. As more time has passed, researchers have been able to conduct autopsies to learn more about the disease. Widespread evidence of inflammation has been found and much of it can be attributed to the leakage of very small blood vessels in the brain. This resembles tiny strokes occurring in many different areas.

The full picture of lasting COVID-19 symptoms, what “long-haulers” may experience, and serious health effects of COVID-19 are still being studied. While scientists work to conduct more research and interpret their findings, it is important to continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The best way to prevent long-lasting symptoms is to prevent transmission altogether.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.

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