The Possible Long-Term Damage from COVID-19
As more research becomes available on the novel coronavirus, our family practice doctors at Cohen Medical Associates want to bring you up to date.
The most disturbing recent findings reveal that infection with SARS-CoV-2 can cause lasting—and possibly permanent—damage to the body, reinforcing the fact that COVID-19 is not “just the flu.”
As we have stressed previously, however, there is no need for panic if you become infected. The vast majority of those who contract COVID-19 will recover with minimal or even no medical intervention. But for the remaining 20 percent or more, the after-effects can be debilitating.
It’s important that you have this information as our state moves toward reopening more and more venues that were shut down to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, so that you can take appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease.
Compared to SARS
“I’m 69 days after my first symptoms and still feeling fatigued,” Canadian comedian Wayne Jones, who tested positive for COVID-19, tweeted recently. “I also have sore eyes and weakness and headaches that come and go.”
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a new (novel) coronavirus, but researchers have seen similar reports from the SARS and MERS coronaviruses from 2002 and 2012, respectively. Studies on the lasting effects of those infections suggest that full recovery can take years or, for some, never.
One study, for example, found that 12 years after infection, SARS survivors continued to experience higher-than-normal lung infections, higher cholesterol levels, and less robust health than those who had never been infected.
“[The] data demonstrated that the recovered SARS patients had a poor quality of life 12 years following recovery, and were susceptible to inflammation, tumors, glucose, and lipid metabolic disorders,” wrote researchers in a 2017 paper in the journal Scientific Reports.
Yes, SARS-CoV-2 is still relatively new. But we’ve had six months now to study the results of COVID-19 infection, and for some survivors, the results aren’t reassuring.
Unlike with the flu, doctors around the world are finding that some COVID-19 patients are experiencing severe and lasting effects throughout the body. This includes heart inflammation which can lead to cardiac arrest, acute kidney disease, liver problems, intestinal and liver damage, and neurological malfunction.
And as many as 40 percent of patients develop blood clots that do not respond to the usual anticoagulant treatment for these often-deadly incidents.
Even surviving these events, however, doesn’t mean patients are in the clear. One study found that, following a coronavirus-induced pulmonary embolism, survivors reported continued shortness of breath, fatigue, heart palpitations, and an inability to return to normal physical activity.
It appears that, unlike with the flu, which is primarily confined to the upper lungs, the SARS-CoV-2 virus attacks every part of the body, from the lungs, to the heart, to the brain, to the kidneys. In the latter case, doctors worldwide report an astonishing number of patients of all ages whose kidneys have failed, requiring that they be put on dialysis.
Indeed, the list of long-term impacts of the novel coronavirus is long—and growing—as we learn more about the disease.
For example, one result not seen with the flu are the reports of young and middle-aged people, barely experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, suddenly experiencing strokes and heart attacks.
“We are used to thinking of 60 as a young patient when it comes to large vessel occlusions [i.e., deadly strokes],” Eytan Raz told The Washington Post. “We have never seen so many in their 50s, 40s, and late 30s.” Raz is an assistant professor of neuroradiology at NYU Langone.
Another symptom, which is common in SARS and MERS but not the flu, is the phenomenon of “glass lung,” in which white spots appear around the edges of the lungs on the CT scans of those infected with COVID-19. In fact, this is such a distinctive signature of the illness that many doctors are diagnosing patients based on their CT scans alone.
Normal lungs appear black on a CT scan because they’re filled with air. The “glass lung” appearance, officially known as “ground glass opacity,” indicates a partial filling of the air spaces in the lower portion of the lungs. These areas become hardened, preventing the patient from breathing properly and can cause permanent damage.
Finally, there’s the neurological damage that has been noted in some COVID-19 survivors: short- and long-term memory issues, “brain fog,” and difficulty concentrating and learning new tasks.
What to do
We urge you to ignore those people who claim COVID-19 is nothing more than a “bad flu,” and to avoid those people and places not practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Wearing a mask—unless it’s a properly fitted N-95 mask (which should be reserved for health-care workers)—won’t protect you from this largely airborne virus, but it will protect others from asymptomatic transmission.
Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and avoid crowded spaces, particularly indoor areas with poor air exchange. And stay away from places where you don’t feel safe.
If you’ve recovered from a mild case of COVID-19 but notice any unusual symptoms, please contact us. This is especially important if you experience sudden numbness, weakness on one side of the body, confusion, or slurring of speech. This is a likely sign of a stroke and should be treated as a medical emergency.