As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, there is still much to be learned about this new virus. One thing doctors and scientist are still determining is what the long-term effects are for those who may contract it. Since the onset of COVID-19, 18 million people (and counting) have contracted the disease. While many have recovered, they still may face some long-term effects post recovery.
Short-term effects of COVID-19
To understand what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are, we first must understand what some of the short-term effects are. Like many respiratory infections, patients with COVID-19 often present with fever, cough and fatigue. Most patients that get the virus will experience mild symptoms and can self-treat at home. Those with a severe case, will often have to be hospitalized and may require additional oxygen and a ventilator to help them breathe. Those with a more severe case of COVID-19 may have:
- Inflammation of the lungs. COVID-19 can move down your respiratory tract and settle in your lungs, where it can cause intense inflammation. Your lungs have tiny air sacs called alveoli, where gas is exchanged between your lungs and the bloodstream. When these sacs get inflamed, they may develop pus which makes it difficult to pass oxygen from your bloodstream to your lungs, making it harder to breathe.
- Fluid in the lungs. Excess fluid in your lungs can cause your lungs to become less elastic. Lung elasticity represents the lung’s ability to expand or inflate by pressures surrounding them, and then the lung’s ability to collapse as soon as the pressure disappears.
- An overworked immune system. Because your body is trying to fight COVID-19, your immune system will work really hard, putting extra pressure on other organs in your body.
Long-term effects of COVID-19
Because COVID-19 is such a new virus and there is still much to be learned about it, knowing for certain what the long-term effects will be is difficult. We have only known about this virus since December of 2019, so doctors and scientists will have to continue to monitor recovered patients to determine what some of the most prevalent long-term effects are. Some initial complications due to COVID-19 include:
- Fibrosis of the lungs – Fibrosis is a lung disease that occurs when tissues of the lungs become extremely damaged and scarred. Fibrosis from COIVD appears to cause portions of the lung tissue to die and leaves affected patients with what appears to be holes in their lungs. This is referred to as post-acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) fibrosis. ARDS happens when the alveoli sacs build up with fluid, which deprives your lungs of oxygen. Patients experiencing fibrosis after COVID-19 can experience irreversible lung damage, which can cause the patient to experience severe functional issues with lungs. For example, a patient may continue to experience shortness of breath and difficulty breathing well after they are COVID-19 free. In a few rare cases, the damage has been so extensive that patients have required lung transplants.
- Blood clotting – Certain patients with serious cases of COVID-19 have also experienced blood clotting, which can affect the way blood and oxygen is received to certain parts of your body, including your limbs and your brain. If blood flow is restricted from your limbs or brain, it can cause strokes or destroy vessels and tissues that may require an amputation. Doctors still do not fully understand the cause and why patients with serious cases of COVID-19 may be experiencing blood clotting.
- Damage to other organs, such as the kidneys, brain and heart – According to The National Kidney Foundation, 15-20% of COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized or in the ICU due to COVID-19 develop acute kidney injury (AKI). AKI occurs when your kidneys stop working suddenly, over a very short period of time. Most COVID patients with AKI who recover may continue to have suppressed kidney function after discharge. Patients who have AKI should continue to be monitored by their physician because their risk of developing chronic kidney disease is increased. Additionally, as the air sacs in you lungs fill with fluid, less oxygen will be distributed in your bloodstream, which can hinder oxygen from getting to other organs such as your brain and heart. Like many other viruses, such as the flu, COVID-19 can also cause inflammation in the brain and heart, which can cause damage to these organs as well. Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, doctors and researchers are still learning what some of the long-term effects to these organs may be.
- Post-intensive care syndrome – being in the hospital or ICU for an extended period can have a serious effect on the mental health of an ICU survivor. Some mental health issues that patients may face when they are released include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Depending on how long they were in the ICU, they may also experience some cognitive impairment, such as decreased attention, memory and mental sharpness and limited physical ability that may take months, if not years, of rehabilitation to correct.
While you may not fall into the increased risk category of COVID-19, it can still have a serious effect on your health over the long-term. Additionally, you need to do everything in your power to help protect family, friends and community members that may be at an increased risk of serious complications if they contract the virus. Wear a mask and follow all the guidelines recommended by the CDC to keep yourself and others safe.
For more information on COVID-19, visit ochsner.org/coronavirus.
The information in this blog post is accurate at the time of publication. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change, it's possible that information has changed since being published. While Ochsner Health is trying to keep our blog posts as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC website.