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COVID’s Lingering Symptoms

Two new studies are adding to a growing body of evidence suggesting COVID-19 causes chronic, debilitating symptoms long past infection and illness. There are now more than 50 symptoms tied to COVID in mild, moderate and severe cases. Fatigue, headaches, brain fog, hair loss, and loss of smell are the most common lingering effects while more worrying symptoms such as lung problems, chest pain, heart problems, sleep disorders and neurological issues have also been reported.

The first investigation is a large meta-analysis that included data from 15 studies in the US, Britain and Europe and involved nearly 48-thousand patients. It found eight out of 10 COVID-19 patients had lingering symptoms or signs 14 or more days after acute infection. At Houston Methodist Research Institute, one site where the data was collected, clinicians found fatigue was the most common symptom of both long and acute COVID-19, and remained present 100 days after onset.

The meta-analysis revealed that during follow up appointments, more than a third of patients had an abnormal chest x-ray or CT scan. Tests also showed elevated biomarkers for inflammation, such as D-dimer and C-reactive protein (CPR). Other symptoms included persistent cough, chest discomfort and pulmonary fibrosis, as well as cardiac arrhythmias, inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis), depression, anxiety and sleep issues.

Last month, the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, reported findings from another study that followed hospitalized patients in Wuhan, China. It showed 76% of those patients were still struggling with the after-effects of COVID-19 six months later. The study cited fatigue and muscle weakness as the most common symptoms. However, some patients experience lasting impacts such as long-term cardiac damage, lung damage and kidney damage.

Because COVID-19 is a new disease, it’s not known how long many of the symptoms will last. Even patients with a mild case of COVID-19 report lasting symptoms for months after infection, such as breathlessness while walking. Adding further to the mystery, researchers are still trying to determine why some people experience these persistent problems — especially when the virus is no longer detected. In many cases, chest x-rays, scans and other tests mysteriously come back normal or negative.

There’s no specific diagnosis for post-COVID symptoms. The syndrome has been described as “long COVID” and those suffering with it as “long haulers.” While at first, some experts dismissed the idea of long haulers due to the lack of medical evidence and inconsistent test results, the medical community is now paying close attention. Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Health Letter, believes post-COVID-19 symptoms can affect a wide range of people from young to old — those who were healthy, those who have been hospitalized, and those with mild cases. As he states, it’s not unthinkable that 50 million Americans could ultimately become infected. If just 5% of COVID patients develop lingering symptoms, post-COVID treatment will become even more critical.

The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has suggested “long COVID” resembles a condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome or ME/CFS. More commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, ME/CFS has symptoms including extreme fatigue, sleep dysfunction, and brain fog — similar to symptoms reported by long-COVID sufferers — and is known to develop following viral infection. A recent study at the Stanford University School of Medicine indicates inflammation is a powerful driver behind chronic fatigue syndrome. Similarly, some scientists believe inflammation could be an underlying factor in the lingering effects of COVID-19. More studies with standardized testing are needed to determine whether COVID-19 directly causes long-term symptoms or if these symptoms are caused by a preexisting disease or condition.

If you’ve had COVID and are still dealing with lingering symptoms that impact the quality of your life, contact your doctor or healthcare provider.