- New data has emerged about the effects of long COVID and the odds of a person developing it.
- Mental health may put some people at a higher risk for developing long COVID.
- The condition can also increase the risk of mental health issues.
- Treatments are evolving, too, but a healthcare professional can help you find assistance, such as support groups or medications to alleviate physical symptoms.
Stores, schools, and stadiums are back to full capacity. Walk inside one and, depending on where you live, you’re likely hard-pressed to find the majority of individuals in masks.
For the general population, COVID-19 risk assessment has become individualized. The virus that shut down businesses and forced schools to go remote in March 2020 has largely become a fact of life and a minor nuisance.
But for the people experiencing post-COVID conditions, more commonly referred to as long COVID, life has significantly changed since they got sick.
The CDC broadly defines long COVID as a range of new, returning, or ongoing health issues a person experiences at least four weeks post-infection.
Though much of the focus has been on physical symptoms, such as fatigue or cough, new research is emerging about mental health effects.
Recently, Seattle-based health data firm Trueveta conducted an analysis for Reuters that indicated individuals with long COVID were more likely to begin taking prescription anti-depressants than people who fully recovered.
The desire to move on and learn to live with COVID-19 is understandable, but experts emphasize it’s essential to get more information about the long-term effects of the virus.
“Recognizing long COVID is important for people that are suffering because we can then identify and normalize long COVID as a valid disease and offer guidance and treatment to those that have this condition,” says Dr. Jaclyn Leong, the co-director of COVID recovery service at UCI Health.
Here’s what we know about the physical and mental effects of long COVID, what scientists are still learning, and where people can turn for resources.
What are the odds of developing long COVID?
The reports of individuals with long COVID have included wide ranges of percentages. For example, the CDC reported that 19% of adults who had COVID-19 were experiencing long COVID in 2022.
Another 2022 study suggested that the risk of long COVID was 24 to 50% higher for people who contracted the Omicron variant than the Delta variant.
A 2021 study pointed out that studies have shown long COVID appeared in 4 to 66% of pediatric patients.
Why all the discrepancies?
“It’s impossible to know exactly how many people will experience long COVID, as the condition is still relatively new and scientists are still learning about it,” says Mandy De Vries, EdD, MS-RCL, the director of education for the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC).
But De Vries notes that even 4% is a significant number of patients.
“The virus has now infected tens of millions of people around the world,” De Vries says. “Even if only a small percentage of those people develop long COVID, that still represents a large number of people who will be dealing with health problems for months or even years to come.”
One expert doesn’t see these numbers as cause for alarm but rather a continued commitment to protecting yourself and others.
“Since we know the cause of long COVID is having contracted the virus, my best advice is not to panic or be afraid, but rather take reasonable precautions to avoid contracting COVID in the first place,” says Dr. Jasmin Valentin of Sameday Health.
These are the precautions we’ve heard about since 2020, including:
- staying up to date with vaccination and boosters
- testing as needed
- staying home if you suspect or know you have COVID-19
- wearing a high-quality mask indoors like an N-95
Who is at risk for long COVID?
Anyone can experience long COVID, but De Vries says preliminary findings suggest factors that make people more likely to develop long COVID include:
- underlying conditions like diabetes
- being female
- pre-infection psychological distress, including anxiety and depression
- unvaccinated individuals
People who have had multiple bouts of COVID-19 are also at a heightened risk for developing long-haul symptoms.
Symptoms of long COVID
There is a wide range of symptoms for long COVID-19, but Valentin says some of the most common include:
- fatigue that interferes with daily life
- cognitive impairment, or brain fog, that makes it difficult to think or concentrate
- rapid heart rate
- sleep problems
- shortness of breath
- joint or muscle pain
A 2022 UK study of non-hospitalized adults still experiencing symptoms 12 weeks post-infection said the most common symptoms included loss of smell, hair loss, and sexual difficulties like ejaculation dysfunction and reduced libido.
The virus may remain in the body
Scientists have questions about why some individuals go on to develop long COVID, and others do not. A small study may provide some clues.
The research, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in September 2022, evaluated plasma samples from 63 COVID-19 patients. Scientists saw the spike protein in most of the blood samples collected from individuals who were experiencing long COVID for up to one year following infection.
Though the research is evolving, Valentin says the new study could lead to promising new developments.
“If this is proven to be true, new antivirals could be developed to target the complete eradication of the virus, effectively curing long COVID, or even preventing it,” Valentin says.
Mental health risks
In the Reuters analysis, researchers analyzed more than 1.3 million adults who had COVID and 19,000 with long COVID, indicating that individuals with long COVID were two times more likely to receive a first-time antidepressant prescription than patients who did not develop the condition.
“During recovery, patients may be frustrated at their inability to perform cognitive functions, or an inability to return to pre-COVID work responsibilities and recreational activities,” says Dr. Gurbinder Sadana, FCCP, the medical director for pulmonary rehab at the Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center Post COVID-19 Recovery Program. ”This can lead to deeper depression and even suicidal ideations.”
Scientists do not yet understand whether or not people with long COVID are more at risk for suicide, but Sadana believes it’s important to continue to explore this possibility — it has life-saving implications.
“These are often the most vulnerable patients, should be recognized early on, and directed toward psychotherapy, including consideration of psychotropic medications,” Sadana says.
Treatment and recovery
Sadana says recovery can take weeks, and, in rare cases, symptoms may linger for a year.
One study put that percentage at 15.1%. This research is currently in pre-print and has not been peer-reviewed.
Valentin says treatment options vary based on the person, but some include:
- care from a respiratory therapist
- beta-blockers for rapid heart rate
- fludrocortisone for blood pressure issues
- therapy for mental health
Sadana says some hospitals offer support groups and special centers for individuals with long COVID symptoms. Your healthcare provider can help you find one.
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