Four months into the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., people that tested positive for COVID-19 are still experiencing life-changing effects.
Bathing, cooking or washing clothes have become challenging tasks for some survivors, and patients seemingly recovered from the virus have returned to the hospital weeks later with a stroke or heart attack.
“They’re noticing that walking upstairs is hard when they used to be a runner,” said Dr. Rebecca Dutch, virologist and chair of the University of Kentucky’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, who is helping coordinate the university’s COVID-19 research.
These long-term symptoms are happening widely across the globe and are affecting both younger and older adults. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested, based on a new survey, that COVID-19 can result in prolonged illness in young adults without underlying chronic medical conditions.
About one-third of adults with positive outpatient test results and about one in five adults aged 18-34 with no chronic medical conditions had not returned to their usual state of health two or three weeks after testing.
Data from the COVID Symptom Study app, created by researchers at King’s College London, revealed that about 10 percent of the nearly four million people contributing to the app had effects lasting more than four weeks.
“It’s becoming clearer that there are long-term residual effects,” said Dr. Todd Rice, a critical care medicine specialist and pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who has been treating COVID-19 patients since early March.
Muscle aches, difficulty breathing, headaches, difficulty concentrating, memory loss and coughs have been widely reported lingering symptoms. There have also been accounts of heart palpitations, night sweats, hair loss and rashes.
Chronic fatigue is possibly the most common debilitating impact, and it seems to be more prolonged than what has been previously seen from viral infections.
“This just seems to go on much longer,” said Rice, who has patients that contracted the virus in March that are still not recovered. “It just wears people out. They just don’t have energy.”
There have also been reports of young children developing a post-inflammatory syndrome, called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, after contracting the virus. It affects multiple organs, such as the kidney, liver, heart, lungs and brain, and can cause symptoms like breathing problems, confusion and delirium, according to Rice, who added that it was rare in adults.
“Anybody can get it. Anybody can get really, really ill, and anybody can get these long-term effects from it,” Rice said. “If you’re young, and have 50 years left in your life, you’re going to want to avoid this so you don’t have 50 years of lingering effects.”
COVID-19 impacts many parts of the body. For most individuals, the effects might appear as a fever, cough or loss of smell. But there could also be abdominal pain, diarrhea, or swelling in the fingers or toes.
“When you get millions of people infected, even if something is quite a rare event, you will start to see it,” Dutch said.
But further investigation is needed to understand the long-term symptoms, how prevalent they are and what’s causing them. Research is also needed to help determine how to prevent the symptoms or lessen and shorten the duration of effects.
“The hard part is that it’s likely that the treatments will need to be done before the lingering symptoms start,” Rice said, as opposed to addressing the symptoms after they appear.
Research indicates that the long-lasting symptoms could be from damage to the body during the illness or an immunological response after the initial disease.
It’s possible that some symptoms could result from a lingering viral infection. Most patients test negative several weeks after contracting the virus, but there have been rare cases of people testing positive for several months.
With limited data and observations, many questions remain unanswered.
“We’re just now starting to understand these longer-term effects,” Rice said. “What are the real long-term effects, a year or two down the road? We don’t know yet.”