The Long Road Of Long COVID

June 23, 2023

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I remember a joyous time when the world was young, and we had nothing to fear or worry about except climate change, an artificial intelligence cascade, political strife, and nuclear war. But we didn’t have to worry about COVID, so it was pretty idyllic. Now, over three years later, the biggest worries of COVID are winding down. The WHO declared COVID-19 to no longer be a global health emergency on May 5, 2023, and most places have lifted or lessened restrictions put in place to stem the spread. People have stopped wearing masks, and life seems to be back to normal. But not for everyone. Long COVID has been described as COVID symptoms that last longer than 5 weeks and may last months or longer. It affects around ⅓ of COVID patients, including over 85% of those that had to go to the hospital with severe symptoms. So what is long COVID, who gets it, how does it work, and is there anything to be done about it?

Long COVID, also called long haul COVID, post-COVID syndrome (PCS), or Post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), is different from person to person but can be debilitating. During acute (normal) COVID infections, people experience trouble with breathing, joint pain, headache, fatigue, stomach problems, and loss of smell and taste. When I had COVID, my sense of taste was so poor that I started liking Limp Bizkit again. Long COVID symptoms are similar to those of acute COVID. Long-lasting and often crushing fatigue is the most common symptom. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of people who run out of energy just deciding what to eat during the day; it can be very intense. Other symptoms include muscle pain, cognitive impairment such as brain fog, headaches, anxiety, and more.

Around 140 million Americans have had COVID at some point.  A recent study found that long COVID was more common and severe in people infected before the 2021 Omicron variant. Several other risk factors have also been identified. The severity of an acute COVID infection plays a role, as does having 5 or more separate symptoms. These can be mediated by being up to date on COVID vaccines. Long COVID is almost twice as common in women, and the risk is also increased if you are over 50 years old. Other health issues can also affect your chances. Being overweight, having psychiatric disorders, having asthma, and being in “poor general health” are risk factors. Interestingly, having latent Epstein-Barr virus might also increase your chances of developing long COVID.

So how does all of this work? In the acute stage of COVID, the virus spreads rapidly and tries to reproduce. It gains entry into cells using its spike protein to fool a receptor on our cells called ACE2. It then hijacks cell machinery to make copies fast. This may kill the infected cells but also brings in the immune system, which kills the invaders (if we’re lucky) and tends to cause some damage through inflammation. It is thought that long COVID occurs through many mechanisms. The immune system can be disrupted, other infections can take hold, we can experience chronic inflammation, and some body systems can be messed up. Even worse, sometimes organs can be damaged from the infection, and the virus might stick around for a while!

The major organs affected in long COVID can be deduced by looking at the symptoms. Trouble breathing, lung impairment, and low breath capacity may result from chronic inflammation and clotting in the lining of the lungs. Chest pain, irregular heartbeats, heart palpitations, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS, low blood volume when standing up) are caused by chronic inflammation and cell death in the cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system has an abundance of ACE2 receptors, meaning it is targeted for direct infection by the COVID virus. Fatigue, trouble sleeping, loss of taste and smell, and cognitive impairment are due to problems with our central nervous system. COVID can cross into the brain and cause inflammation of support cells and clotting (possibly leading to stroke!), and may also affect the brain stem. Nervous system problems affect around ⅓ of people by six months after COVID. There can also be problems with the kidney and pancreas.

So what can we do? Our best bet is to reduce the effects of COVID in the first place – or avoid it altogether. Staying up to date on COVID vaccines and boosters lowers both the severity of acute COVID and the risks of developing long COVID. Continuing to wear masks, washing hands frequently, and being careful around sick people can also help, and staying healthy with diet and exercise can give a leg up. Unfortunately, if you already have long COVID, there are no meds proven to cure it. Treating symptoms is our current best practice. Supplements may help, including B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, and selenium. Multivitamins, mineral supplements, and probiotics have shown preliminary promise, as has the antiviral paxlovid. ANY alteration of medication, including supplements, should be run by your doctor first to ensure they are safe and don’t interact with other conditions or medications you may be on. Non-pharmaceutical solutions may also help. Physical rehabilitation – including pulmonary rehabilitation – as well as mental health and social assistance are vital to making it down the long road of long COVID.

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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