COVID cases are finally starting to decline, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over and we can let our guard down. The virus is still a threat and as if dealing with COVID wasn’t bad enough, many will experience long COVID-a condition where symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, brain fog, hair loss and more can happen for weeks, months or even years after the initial infection. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Long COVID has been described as our ‘next national health disaster’ and the ‘pandemic after the pandemic.” In addition, KFF states, “Preliminary evidence suggests there may be significant implications for employment: Surveys show that among adults with long COVID who worked prior to infection, over half are out of work or working fewer hours.” Long COVID has serious long-term effects and Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with family practitioner, Dr. Janice Johnston, MD, Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder at Redirect Health who shares what to know about long COVID and how many people are expected to have it. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
- What to Know About Long COVID
Dr. Johnston tells us, “Long COVID can affect anyone of any age, including children and adolescents. Even someone with mild or no symptoms during initial COVID-19 infection can still be impacted by long COVID. Symptoms from long COVID can even be more severe than the acute COVID-19 infection itself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set the timeline to diagnose long COVID as still experiencing symptoms at least one month after initial infection. Doctors will use tests like electrocardiograms, chest X-rays, CT scans, or bloodwork to rule out other conditions that could be causing symptoms and from there they will evaluate the likelihood of long COVID in order to diagnose the patient.”
- Why Some People Get Long COVID and Others Don’t
Dr. Johnston says, “Research suggests that around 10-30% of people who contract COVID-19 will suffer from long COVID, although this phenomenon is not widely or robustly understood by professionals. However, new research has shown that there are 4 major factors that can contribute to someone experiencing long COVID.
The first factor identified is the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood early in the infection, indicating their viral load.
The second factor is the presence of certain autoantibodies within the body. These autoantibodies are antibodies that mistakenly attack their own body and tissues when fighting off the virus.
The third factor is the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus in the case that someone has been exposed earlier in their life. Epstein-Barr affects many people when they’re young and can lay dormant in the body.
Lastly, the fourth factor contributing to long COVID is Type-2 Diabetes. However, experts say diabetes may be just one of many conditions that exasperate long COVID. Someone with one or more of these factors is much more likely to have difficulty recovering from COVID-19 with an increased risk of long COVID than someone who does not experience these issues.”
- Depression and Anxiety Can Increase the Risk of Long COVID
According to Dr. Johnston, “A new study found that people who feel depressed, anxious, lonely, or stressed are more likely to develop long COVID symptoms. The results showed that people who reported psychological distress before they got infected with COVID-19 had a 32-46% increased risk of long COVID compared to people without these stressors. The study also found that there was a stronger connection between long COVID and psychological distress than physical factors like obesity, asthma, and hypertension. However, physical comorbidities and preexisting conditions like lung disease, diabetes, and asthma are still leading risk factors of long COVID. Additionally, vaccination status plays a key role in someone’s ability to recover from COVID-19 and to avoid developing long COVID symptoms. People who received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine are 7-10 times less likely to experience 2 or more long COVID symptoms than unvaccinated people, research shows.”
- Long-Term Effects of Long COVID
Dr. Johnston says, “The most common symptoms of long COVID are extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell, and muscle aches. However, there are many other symptoms you can experience after a COVID-19 infection, including but not limited to, brain fog, chest pain or tightness, insomnia, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles, joint pain, depression and anxiety, earaches, diarrhea, a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste, or rashes. COVID-19 symptoms can vary greatly and so can long COVID, so it can be hard to predict exactly how someone may be affected. Most people are expected to recover from long COVID in up to 12 weeks, but for some, symptoms can persist longer.”
In addition, many people have been affected in the workplace, according to KFF.
“Many conditions associated with long COVID—such as malaise, fatigue, or the inability to concentrate—limit people’s ability to work, even if they have jobs that allow for remote work and other accommodations. Two surveys of people with long COVID who had worked prior to infection showed that between 22% and 27% of those workers were out of work after getting long COVID. In comparison, among all working-age adults in 2019, only 7% were out of work. Given the sheer number of working age adults with long COVID, the employment implications may be profound and are likely to affect more people over time. One study estimates that long COVID already accounts for 15 percent of unfilled jobs.”
- The Latest Long COVID Figures
Dr. Johnston states, “According to the CDC, 1 in 13 out of all U.S. adults claimed to be experiencing long COVID symptoms. However, 1 in 5 U.S. adults who state they have had COVID-19 in the past, report experiencing long COVID. Interestingly, long COVID is more likely to appear in younger adults with those in the 50-59 age range being three times more likely to have long COVID than those 80 and up. Women are also more likely to experience lingering symptoms than men.”
- The Dangers of COVID Reinfections and Long COVID
According to Dr. Johnston, “While studies are still in their early stages, many health professionals agree that getting sick with COVID-19 more than once increases your risk of experiencing long COVID with each reinfection. The risk of developing a long-term medical issue is three times higher for infected individuals than those who are not. While it’s still possible to have a less severe case upon reinfection, each reinfection does increase your chances of experiencing a more severe case of COVID-19.”
- The Three Categories of Long COVID
Dr. Johnston shares, “Experts have broken down long COVID into three separate categories in order to properly distinguish between different ways people can experience these symptoms.
Hospitalizations – when symptoms appear as a result of a long hospitalization from COVID-19 and may be in hospitalized care or on bed rest for weeks. Symptoms from this category are typically decreased cognitive brain function, muscle performance, and PTSD symptoms.
Cell Damage – some cases of long COVID are a result of cell damage from the virus in the body that can take a long time to repair or could have permanent damage.
Post-Recovery – some people experience long COVID symptoms only after recovering from the disease itself. This is often due to interactions between the immune system and the inflammatory system, both of which are working in overdrive from the virus, and therefore only appear after you have recovered.
Just like COVID-19 itself, symptoms of long COVID can affect just about every system in the body from the nervous system, cardiovascular system, to the gastrointestinal system. This means, if you end up with long COVID symptoms, every organ in your body is subject to being affected and a variety of outcomes could happen. Outcomes can range from shortness of breath, insomnia or brain fog, diarrhea, skin conditions, or even triggering long-term issues you may have had before getting sick with COVID-19.”