Why should you care about the long-term effects of COVID-19?
Nobody is safe in this pandemic until we reach a worldwide herd immunity that is unfortunately still far away from being achieved. This also means that we still provide a breeding ground for the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) to mutate and give rise to new variants that might become fitter and fitter in terms of more effective transmissibility, resulting in more severe disease and very likely in the future might bypass the existing vaccines. Being young and fit doesn’t provide a bulletproof vest in this pandemic as many factors, e.g. genetics, decide how well each and every individual fights the different variants of this coronavirus. One individual might be lucky to have no symptoms at all, whereas another individual ends up in the intensive care of a hospital. Lastly, a third individual might have symptoms and fights the coronavirus well, but is left with consequences e.g. loss of taste and smell, a compromised lung capacity and/or chronic headache and fatigue ending up in a condition called long COVID.
Vaccines help to prevent severe disease and death
Every human being regardless of age and vaccination status can be infected by one of the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and develop the disease known as COVID-19. Any infected person by SARS-CoV-2 could transmit the virus to other people regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms. This virus can target multiple organs such as lungs, kidneys, heart, liver and brain. However, it has been observed that the COVID-19 vaccines help to prevent severe disease and death.
Once a person is infected by this virus, it usually takes 5-6 days before the onset of symptoms. These are typically one or more of the following:
fatigue, cough, congestion or shortness of breath, loss of taste and/ or smell, headache, body aches, diarrhea, nausea, chest or abdominal pain, and confusion.
It is estimated that from all SARS-CoV-2-infected people, 10-15 % progress to severe disease, and 5 % of the severe cases become critically ill and end up in intensive care. For a mild disease course, it takes an average of up to 2 weeks before recovery and for a severe disease course, it takes an average of up to 6 weeks before recovery.
Long-term effects of COVID-19 (long COVID-19)
It is worth mentioning that COVID-19 can potentially result in a prolonged illness for all different populations and age groups. We still do not know how gender, ethnicity, and vaccination status influence the development of long-term COVID-19. Amongst others, the World Health Organization (WHO) has registered case reports of people who did not regain their previous health status after infection. Previously infected people can experience one or more long-term effects from COVID-19 ranging from:
Persistent and significant impairment of exercise capacity
Damage to heart and heart failure
Damage to lung tissue and restrictive lung failure
Loss of taste or smell
Thrombo-embolic events, e.g. pulmonary embolism, heart attack, and stroke
Impairment of memory and concentration/ focusing
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Pain in joints and muscles
The above-listed symptoms can persist or even recur after a few weeks or months.
The German Respiratory Society and others estimate that around 10 % of those infected are dealing with one or more long-term effects of a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Additionally, data from the UK shows that about 40 % of those more severely infected require longer-term medical care for different aspects of long COVID-19, e.g. improving a limited lung capacity.
Thus, hospitals, long COVID-19 medical support organizations, and self-help groups have been created to help those individuals dealing with long COVID-19. While these rehabilitation opportunities are in place, there is no guarantee that each and every individual will regain their previous health status. There are examples of even young and otherwise healthy individuals that struggle to regain their sense of taste and smell, which makes it impossible to enjoy foods such as lasagna and/or their favorite cake. Or those who continue to experience fatigue or other symptoms for months or even years.
Keep in mind that protection and prevention of an infection with the SARS-CoV-2 is the most effective way of bypassing long COVID-19. Remember to get your first, second, or third shot of one of the existing vaccines, stay away from crowds, wear masks, keep your distance, and get regularly tested before meeting people in closed spaces. Stay safe and healthy!
Contributed by: Text: Julia Brinkmeier
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Studies of Long-term effects of COVID-19