Scientists have warned that there is a possibility that people infected with COVID-19 may never fully recover from the virus’s debilitating effects.
Health experts have only recently began to understand the vast array of health conditions caused by COVID-19, with research suggesting that the disease causes a far wider range of health problems that previously thought.
Now, scientists are warning that COVID-19 does not just cause a wider range of symptoms – but that they last for a longer timespan than previously thought.
“If you previously ran 5k three times a week and now feel breathless after a single flight of stairs, or if you cough incessantly and are too exhausted to return to work, then the fear that you may never regain your previous health is very real,” Dr. Helen Salisbury of the University of Oxford wrote in the British Medical Journal last week.
The coronavirus was originally identified as primarily a respiratory disease that leaves patients struggling to breath, with ventilators becoming a crucial tool in keeping those alive. However, as COVID-19 has spread around the world, experts identified it attacks organs throughout the body, causing potentially catastrophic damage.
“We thought this was only a respiratory virus. Turns out, it goes after the pancreas. It goes after the heart. It goes after the liver, the brain, the kidney and other organs. We didn’t appreciate that in the beginning,” Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California told Reuters.
COVID-19 patients can suffer from blood clotting disorders, leading to strokes, and extreme inflammation that attacks multiple organ systems, while also attacking the brain, with headaches, dizziness, and loss or taste and smell all symptoms of the virus in addition to respiratory problems.
The recovery from all of these symptoms can be very slow and costly, incurring a huge impact on quality of life.
The broad and diverse manifestations of COVID-19 are somewhat unique, said Dr. Sadiya Khan, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago told Reuters.
With influenza, people with underlying heart conditions are also at higher risk of complications, Khan said. What is surprising about this virus is the extent of the complications occurring outside the lungs.
Khan believes there will be a huge healthcare expenditure and burden for individuals who have survived COVID-19.
The long road to recovery
Patients who were in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator for weeks will need to spend extensive time in rehab to regain mobility and strength, say doctors.
“It can take up to seven days for every one day that you’re hospitalized to recover that type of strength,” Khan said. “It’s harder the older you are, and you may never get back to the same level of function.”
While much of the focus has been on the minority of patients who experience severe disease, doctors increasingly are looking to help patients who were not sick enough to require hospitalization, but are still suffering months after first becoming infected.
Studies are just getting underway to understand the long-term effects of infection, Jay Butler, deputy director of infectious diseases at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a telephone briefing on Thursday.
“We hear anecdotal reports of people who have persistent fatigue, shortness of breath,” Butler said. “How long that will last is hard to say.”
While coronavirus symptoms typically resolve in two or three weeks, an estimated 1 in 10 experience prolonged symptoms, Salisbury wrote last week.