To date, nearly 70 million people have contracted the coronavirus around the world. More than 1.5 million people have died from COVID 19, millions of others have been hospitalized. There are also many cases where patients only develop mild symptoms that only last for a few weeks or show no symptoms at all and then there’s long COVID. Long COVID is when patients still experience symptoms months after a COVID infection. There’s still a lot that researchers don’t understand about the novel coronavirus, and the same goes for long COVID. We do know that thousands of people say they’ve been struggling with longer-term symptoms.
Some estimates say about 10 percent of covid-19 patients deal with lasting complications, which may include: breathlessness, joint pain, and fatigue.
Patients are left in pain or unable to breathe properly. Simple day-to-day tasks become massive challenges, and yet long COVID is not yet recognized as a disease.
What exactly is long COVID?
So, what exactly is long COVID, and how is it different from covid19? It can be hard to distinguish between the two. In the first place, experts talk about long COVID when significant symptoms are still noticeable eight to 12 weeks after infection. The lasting effects can differ significantly from person to person, adding to the confusion for patients.
Scientists trying to get a better picture of long COVID have divided complications into two main categories: respiratory symptoms and fatigue, and headaches, and then there are multi-system symptoms that affect several parts of the body like the heart, the brain, and the gut. These symptoms can be incredibly puzzling for patients and difficult to cope with.
Initial data suggests that almost all people who have long COVID experience fatigue. In many cases, it goes beyond just feeling lethargic; it may mean feeling too weak to perform even simple day-to-day tasks. While most patients say they experienced continuous fatigue, those suffering from headaches say the pain comes and goes.
Many people in the neurology and neuroimmunology space are starting to think about its mechanism and doing MRI studies. The emerging answers are that functional imaging correlates to these symptoms where you can see inflammatory events and perhaps begin to work out what’s going on.
A temporary loss of smell known as anosmia is another symptom reported by people with long COVID. This symptom is not true only for those who contracted the novel coronavirus. Several viral infections can cause people to lose their ability to smell for some time so, these kinds of things are way up on the list and quite bizarre things, such as people describing peculiar smells that torment them. One that I’ve heard frequently is a kind of concern about smells of burning toast. Anosmia affects smell loss so profoundly and makes you think that the virus must be doing some damage or some inflammatory damage in the olfactory receptors.
In the early days discovering these symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, and other common symptoms of long COVID include a fast heartbeat, joint pain, and a loss of taste. Patients have also reported experiencing so-called brain fog. They find it hard to think clearly or focus, and they feel confused or disorganized. Sometimes, the effects of long COVID are all but undetectable to the patients themselves and they may be unaware of the damage done to their bodies. For example, involving internal organs, it was found that if doctors use very sensitive imaging with cardiac magnetic resonance, they can see inflammation of the heart muscle in a considerable proportion of patients. This inflammation is a few months from the acute infection, meaning people would consider themselves being recovered. Yet, we have seen the involvement of the heart muscle according to initial data.
Several factors could affect how long COVID patients suffer from symptoms linked to COVID 19. Research suggests that people over the age of 70 are twice as likely to develop long COVID than those between 18 and 49 years old. Data also suggests that in the younger age bracket, gender determines who’s more likely to develop long COVID. Surprisingly, the risk has been reported to be higher for younger women than younger men, somewhere between 35 to 45. People who have been fit and well before may have actually had a very mild acute infection, but suddenly, they develop this shortness of breath.
Tachycardia, meaning the heart rate is very fast, causes inner heart failure in many patients. The severity differs from patient to patient. For instance, in some patients, the heart’s pumping function would still be preserved, but they cannot increase their exercise capacity tolerance. The patients are simply out of breath, just sitting. In a check, experts say the severity of a patient’s original case of COVID 19 often says little about how they might experience long-COVID symptoms. Whether you get it or not doesn’t even seem to correlate very well with how severely you had the acute infection because it was simply to do with how hard the virus had hit you.
You’d imagine that the people who’d perhaps been hospitalized had a high viral load and had a very explicit disease would be most at risk for this, but that’s not really the case. However, the first week of COVID can indicate whether a patient develops long COVID or not. Those patients who show many different symptoms in the first week are at a higher risk of long COVID. Researchers insist that it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions from this data, but tracking patients’ early symptoms is seen as important.
This nightmare is a story that we’re narrating in real-time, and we don’t know how long it’s going to go on or how it’s going to end. We don’t know if this new disease we’re talking about is a six-month story, a six-year story, or a lifelong story. But whatever it is, it would be beneficial if you could spot it earlier and do something to prevent it.
Researchers found that people with asthma were more likely to develop long COVID. Studies into these risk factors and long COVID complications as a whole are ongoing. We need a year or two to be sure what is actually the true long-term effect. We do not have this data, everything about this virus whenever we thought we were confident and had it sorted. In the beginning, people used to tell it’s a bit like flu every time because they could see that its nearest neighbour is the common cold viruses where people treated it as a neighbour of the common cold. Every time we had assumptions, we were wildly wrong and had to rewrite the textbook. For the time being, experts are hoping to draw parallels from similar diseases to be able to deal with patients’ symptoms. However, the problem comes when a patient shows different symptoms at different times.
In most countries, our medicine is very clearly stratified into specialties. The cardiologist rarely speaks to the haematologist, and the haematologist rarely speaks to the respiratory physician. This lack of interoperability goes on and on and on, and you’re either in one pathway or the other, and most of them aren’t very good at speaking to each other. So, where on earth do you go if you’re a patient who in January feels breathless, in February feels you’ve got heart pain, and then march feels you’ve got joint pain, and there is no pathway for you. I think we’re all obligated to build that pathway.