As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, concerns rise about lingering symptoms and long-term damage after recovery. There’s been a variety of cases reported in the media, and it seems that the disease either progresses one of two ways: patients recover quickly, like with any other regular virus, or their condition becomes critical, and they are hurried into the intensive care unit. However, these are only mild or extreme cases. Those who struggle recovering from the virus, but are not in critical condition to be hospitalized, face an unfortunate reality: they suffer from persistent symptoms even weeks after a “full” recovery. The novel virus’s unpredictable nature and our limited knowledge of it make us wonder how long these symptoms will persist, and if they can eventually develop into chronic diseases in the future.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronavirus symptoms develop after 2 to 14 days of exposure to the virus, ranging from mild to severe: “Fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhea.”
Despite this, many are suffering from residual maladies after overcoming the virus; among these afflictions are fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, brain fog, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain (Couzin-Frankel, 2020). Scientists are trying to investigate why some of these severe symptoms arise in some people, but not in others.
One of these cases is seen with neuroscientist Athena Akrami, 38, who has been suffering debilitating symptoms ever since her coronavirus infection, dating back to March 17th—more than 4 months ago. Akrami had all the regular symptoms: she had been fighting a fever, cough, fatigue, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Now, months after the contraction of the disease, she reports suffering from severe muscle and joint pain, as well as “brain fog,” an umbrella term used to encapsulate several cognitive dysfunctions including memory problems, lack of mental clarity, and the inability to focus.
Akrami describes her drastic change of lifestyle: “I used to go to the gym three times a week…[Now,] my physical activity is bed to couch, maybe couch to kitchen.” She has yet to return to her normal routine.
It is currently very challenging to predict which sector of the population will develop these persistent symptoms, as studies fail to show a direct correlation. According to a study conducted in Italy, 87% of patients hospitalized for “acute COVID-19” were continuing to suffer from symptoms 2 months after. Another investigation led by the COVID Symptom Study, which collects data from the US, the UK, and Sweden via an online application, reports that 10% to 15% of people, including more mild cases of the virus, don’t recover quickly.
As the fight against the virus continues, researchers are scrambling to find answers. Some believe that the coronavirus’s “propensity to cause widespread inflammation and blood clotting, could play a role in the assortment of concerns now surfacing” (Couzin-Frankel, 2020). In addition, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) uses a “spike protein” to attach itself onto cells’ ACE2 receptors, which are found all over the lungs, heart, gut, kidney, blood vessels, and the nervous system, making it incredibly destructive for many organs and tissues.
Jeffrey Goldberger, a chief cardiologist at the University of Miami, stated that doctors can still “extrapolate and anticipate” long-term effects of the virus.
A previous study based on the SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) revealed how healthcare workers that had lung lesions 1 year after contracting SARS in 2003, still had them 15 years later. Ali Gholamrezanezhad, a radiologist at the Keck School of Medicine, stated that they “expected to see a lot of long-term damage from COVID-19: scarring, decreased lung function, decreased exercise capacity,” but concluded that “COVID-19 is in general a milder disease,” and was less aggressive than SARS when comparing overall lung damage (Couzin-Frankel, 2020).
Although many things are uncertain, scientists and doctors are working around the clock to find answers. Only time will reveal all the side-effects and long-term conditions that will arise because of COVID-19. All we can do is quarantine ourselves, act responsibly for the sake of our health and others, and be mindful that the pandemic is still not over.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, May 13). Symptoms of Coronavirus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
Couzin-Frankel, J. (2020, July 31). From ‘brain fog’ to heart damage, COVID-19’s lingering problems alarm scientists. American Association for the Advancement of Science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/brain-fog-heart-damage-covid-19-s-lingering-problems-alarm-scientists