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Long-term Health Effects of COVID-19

COVID-19 symptoms can sometimes persist for months. The virus can not only damage the lungs, but can also damage the heart and brain, increasing the risk of long-term health issues.

Recovering from the COVID-19 does not mean the end of complications for some people.   While the first few months of the pandemic were devoted to preventing transmission and figuring out on how to take care of those in the hospitals, not much attention was paid to the after-effects of this disease. But over 10 months into this epidemic, these can no longer be ignored. While SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) essentially hits the lungs, it can also damage the digestive system, kidneys, the heart and brain amongst other organs, thus increasing the risk of long-term health problems and life-threatening complications.

Post COVID-19 Syndrome

While many people who have had COVID-19 recover completely within few days or weeks, for some (even those who had experienced mild versions of the pandemic) the road to recovery seems to be quite a long one. These people continue to experience symptoms after their initial recovery. This condition is called the Post-COVID-19 Syndrome’ or the ‘long COVID-19.’

While older individuals and those with many severe medical conditions are expected to experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms, even young (otherwise healthy individuals) may also feel unwell for weeks to months after this infection. The most common symptoms that persist over time include:

  1. Joint pain
  2. Fatigue
  3. Breathlessness (or Shortness of breath)
  4. Cough
  5. Chest pain

Other long-term symptoms may include:

  1. Headache and muscle pain
  2. Pounding or fast heart beat
  3. Loss of taste or smell
  4. Memory issues, concentration or sleep problems
  5. Hair loss or Rash

Organ damage caused by COVID-19

While COVID-19 is generally seen as a disease that mainly affects the lungs, it can damage many other organs too. The organ damage caused COVID-19 can increase the risk of long-term health problems. Organs that may be affected by COVID-19 include:

  1. Heart: Diagnostic image tests taken months after recovery from COVID-19 infection have shown lasting damage to heart muscle, even in those who have had only mild symptoms. This can raise the risk of heart failure or other heart complications in the near future.
  2. Lungs: The type of pneumonia often linked with COVID-19 can cause long-lasting damage to the alveoli (tiny air sacs) in the lungs. The resultant scar tissue can cause long-standing breathing issues.
  3. Brain: COVID-19 can cause seizures, strokes and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition that causes temporary paralysis even in young people. COVID-19 can also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Blood clots and blood vessel problems

COVID-19 infection can potentially make blood cells to clump up and form clots. Although bigger clots may lead to strokes and heart attacks, much of the heart damage caused by COVID-19 is said to come from very small clots that block capillaries (tiny blood vessels) in the heart muscle.

Other body parts affected by blood clots include liver, kidneys, the lungs and legs. Also, COVID-19 can weaken blood vessels causing them to leak, which contributes to potentially long-lasting health issues with the kidneys and liver.

Problems with fatigue and mood

People experiencing serious symptoms of COVID-19 have to be treated often in an ICU (intensive care unit) of a hospital, with mechanical assistance including ventilators to breathe. Surviving this experience can make an individual more likely to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety and depression later.

Because it is tough to predict long-term outcomes from COVID-19 virus, scientists are exploring the long-term effects seen in related viruses such as the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

Most of the individuals who have recovered from SARS developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Chronic fatigue syndrome a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that may get worse with physical or mental activity, which does not improve with rest. The same could be true for those who have had COVID-19 infection.

Post-COVID-19 Problems in the Elderly

Senior citizens or the elderly are part of the vulnerable population, especially during COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that adults aged 60 and above, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, particularly diabetes, lung disease, heart disease or cancer are prone to have severe, even deadly, COVID-19 infection compared to other age groups.

The Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR) says approximately 60-70% patients infected with this viral disease have cardiac problems or injury. Doctors say it is more common among high-risk groups like those aged  50 years and above with comorbidities. While cardiac involvement is common among these groups, some may also ultimately develop multi-organ failure. Besides, those having higher D-Dimer during the infection may face blood clotting even after recovery.

There are reports that physical and mental health risks, including the risk of depression and loneliness among older people, have also increased.

Post-COVID-19 Issues among Children

Research shows that most children who get infected with COVID-19 develop just mild symptoms or may be asymptomatic. They rarely develop severe complications from the disease. However, some children may end up getting seriously sick from COVID-19 due to an abnormal immune system reaction. Children who get severely infected may have to battle new paediatric inflammatory disease called the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS –C), which is a severe and life-threatening disease.

Symptoms of MIS-C are reported to show up after several weeks or a month of exposure to COVID-19 infection. Usually, they do not show the typical respiratory symptoms associated with the virus. Parents should note that while the post-recovery cases of MIS-C are present only a  tiny percentage, it is a life-threatening disease and may impact many parts of the body.

While all children may not have the same signs of MIS, some of the most common symptoms of the disease are:

  • Lethargy
  • High fever that lasts 24 hours or more
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Skin rash or discolouration (patchy, pale or blue skin)
  • Chest pain, racing heart
  • Trouble breathing
  • Decreased urination
  • Irritability, confusion

Conclusion

Much is still not known on how COVID-19 can affect people over time. But, scientists recommend that doctors should monitor people who have had COVID-19 closely to observe how their organs are functioning post recovery.

Keeping this in mind, Apollo Hospitals launched Apollo ReCOVer Clinics, specialized post-COVID clinics to provide exclusive care for patients who have persistent symptoms, or related organ damage  after recovering from COVID-19.

It is important to know that many people who have COVID-19 may recover quickly. However, the potential long-standing health issues from COVID-19 make it even more important to reduce the spread of the disease by following precautions like wearing masks, avoiding crowds and keeping hands clean.

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