How Likely Are You to Develop ‘Long COVID' After a Virus Infection?

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After being diagnosed with a coronavirus infection, some people have complained of symptoms lasting beyond the duration of the virus -- a condition now commonly known as "long COVID."

"Long COVID" is more broadly referred to as "post-COVID conditions," or PCC, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

How likely are you to develop long COVID after an infection?

"The great majority of people who recover from COVID do not have long term effects, thankfully," Arwady said in a Facebook live event this week.

According to health officials, for symptoms to be considered "long COVID," they must last longer than four weeks. Otherwise, the patient is likely still just recovering from the virus.

"We don't consider it long COVID if somebody gets diagnosed with COVID and for two, three, four weeks later, they're still recovering," Arwady said.

Typically, Arwady said the symptoms are similar to those the patient had during their initial COVID infection. The most common symptoms she's seen in weeks following a diagnosis include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog, muscle pain, fevers, dizziness, rash, mood changes and the loss of taste and smell.

"If people lose taste and smell, that might not come back for months," Arwady said. "But it typically does come back."

Though severe cases of the virus may cause inflammation and stress on the body, which could lead to hair loss for some, she hasn't seen patients diagnosed with new diseases, such as cancer, as a direct result of a COVID infection.

Arwady noted, however, that people who have pre-existing conditions that impact their immune systems, such as diabetes, are statistically more likely to see longer-lasting symptoms after being diagnosed with COVID.

Could these long term effects become permanent?

"We don't know. There are certainly people who continue to have effects that seem to have started from when they first got COVID," Arwady said. "There are, though, also plenty of people who have long COVID symptoms that went on for months and have fully recovered."

For some patients experiencing long COVID symptoms, Arwady said receiving a vaccination helped them to alleviate those ailments and recover.

Here are the most commonly reported long COVID symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities (also known as post-exertional malaise)
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Cough
  • Chest or stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Pins-and-needles feeling
  • Diarrhea
  • Sleep problems
  • Fever
  • Dizziness on standing (lightheadedness)
  • Rash
  • Mood changes
  • Change in smell or taste
  • Changes in menstrual period cycles

Though Arwady said she and her team have not personally treated patients with new major health conditions stemming from a coronavirus infection, some studies are starting to show a more serious impact.

One of the latest studies on COVID found that during at least the first few months following a coronavirus infection, even mild cases of COVID-19 are associated with subtle tissue damage and accelerated losses in brain regions tied to the sense of smell, as well as a small loss in the brain’s overall volume.

Having mild COVID is also associated with a cognitive function deficit.

The new study was led by University of Oxford investigators, one that leading COVID researchers consider particularly important because it is the first study of the disease’s potential impact on the brain that is based on brain scans taken both before and after participants contracted the coronavirus.

Gwenaëlle Douaud, an associate professor at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Oxford and the paper’s lead author, said that the excess loss of brain volume she and her colleagues observed in brain scans of hundreds of British individuals is equivalent to at least one extra year of normal aging.

“It is brain damage, but it is possible that it is reversible,” she said. “But it is still relatively scary because it was in mildly infected people.”

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