The COVID-19 pandemic hit home recently in our family when my brother, sister-in-law, and their kids came down with the virus. While my brother and the boys were better in a few days, his wife became short of breath to the point that she required hospitalization on oxygen. Luckily, she didn’t require a ventilator to breathe and, after a week, was discharged to home oxygen therapy and rest.
Hopefully, she’ll recover fully, but some people are still not completely back to normal months later. A number of these had only mild forms of the disease. Some have taken to calling these post-COVID victims “long-haulers”. It’s thought to affect ten percent of COVID sufferers, making it possible that they number in the millions. The grand majority test negative for COVID-19.
Despite being primarily respiratory in its worst effects, it appears now that the virus could affect just about every organ system. The lungs are often involved in long-haulers, but the kidneys, heart, joints, and even the brain have shown to be impacted as well.
Strokes and heart attacks seem to occur more often. While large clots are mostly responsible for these events, COVID may also cause tiny clots that block very small capillaries in heart muscle and the brain. Besides causing clots, COVID might weaken blood vessels and cause leakage, which can damage liver or kidney tissue.
Chronic shortness of breath is not uncommon, sometimes making it difficult to sleep. Simple tasks like climbing upstairs become challenging.
In addition to these serious effects, the loss of taste and smell seen in some COVID victims may turn out to be permanent. General symptoms like tiredness, headache, and body aches are also reported. Mental changes seen include forgetfulness and confusion. Many long-haulers report simply not feeling like “themselves.”
Of course, those patients who required intensive care on ventilators for weeks just to remain alive have to deal with a lot more than that. Depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) plague many survivors. The related SARS virus, which caused an epidemic in 2003, left a number of victims with chronic fatigue syndrome.
In some, all of the above symptoms come and go, with relapses every few weeks.
Like chronic Lyme disease, there’s still a lot to learn about post-COVID syndrome and few facilities (so far) that are researching it. Expect to see an uptick in research and public awareness on long-term effects as we progress through the pandemic.
Fortunately, most who come down with COVID-19 recover quickly, and many have no symptoms at all. For those long-haulers, however, this fact gives little comfort. More attention must be placed to learning about what we can expect after the pandemic is over.
Joe Alton MD
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