Covid-19 is more than just a short-term illness and can cause debilitating physical and psychiatric symptoms for months or years after infection. Here’s what we know about long Covid.
- The majority of early research only covered hospitalized patients and there is still no set diagnostic criteria, but studies suggest around %10 to %30 of Covid-19 patients go on to become “long haulers” with lingering symptoms.
- Patients report a wide range of symptoms, sometimes only months after the initial infection, including fatigue, ongoing respiratory issues, loss of smell and taste, “brain fog” memory loss, headaches, muscle ache and depression.
- It isn’t yet clear who is most at risk of developing long Covid, though it appears to be unrelated to the severity of the initial disease and, unlike the initial Covid-19 infection, only weakly linked to age, meaning children and young people are also at risk.
- There’s also no sense yet of the duration of long Covid—Dr. David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, told Forbes the nearest illness to long Covid is probably chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME), which can last decades.
- Like ME, there is also not yet much in the way of treatment for those suffering from long Covid, though Strain said there is promising research suggesting mRNA vaccines—which includes Pfizer and Moderna—are able to alleviate symptoms.
There’s a lot we don’t know about long Covid, including what causes it, Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University in London, told Forbes. It could be some lingering effect of the virus that persists after infection, the effect of inflammation, or possibly the body mounting an immune response against itself, Gurdasani explained. Biologically speaking, Gurdasani said long Covid could be several disorders grouped together.
Originally understood as a respiratory illness, we now know that Covid-19 has an effect on the entire body. “It doesn’t spare any organ It invades tissues, has been recovered in the brain and found persisting in the gut long after infection,” Gurdasani said. While it is not totally unexpected that Covid-19 is implicated in some long-term conditions—many infections, including polio and measles, have well documented long-term effects—many have struggle to find the support, help and recognition they need, an issue that will only get worse as nations moves on from the pandemic without a plan for the millions of survivors who haven’t quite recovered.
Despite having one of the worst infection rates in the world, most of the U.K. is set to lift all coronavirus restrictions on July 19, including masking and distancing guidance. Prime Minister Boris Johnson justified the approach because the country has, through vaccination, “severed the link” between infections and serious illness or death. Over a hundred experts have pushed back against the plan, accusing the government of ignoring the threat of long Covid, especially in children and young people, many of whom have not yet been vaccinated.
“From a policy point of view, we can’t just focus on deaths and hospitalizations,” Gurdasani said. “The classic narrative is that children and young people are not affected. Well, they might not die, but they can be disabled in a very severe way.”
The Delta variant is spreading through unvaccinated populations rapidly, even in highly vaccinated countries. Children, many of whom have not been vaccinated, are especially vulnerable, and, Strain added, possibly spreading the virus without masks or social distancing at school. The CDC updated its mask guidance for schools Friday, putting it in line with adult guidance that the fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks indoors.
33.7 million. That’s how many people in the U.S. have had Covid-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Using a conservative estimate of 10% for how many people go on to develop long Covid and subtracting how many have died from Covid-19, that’s 3.3 million Americans who could be living with persistent, debilitating symptoms.
- Edited and written by Emirhan Tongün.