Why Do Some Illnesses Cause Chronic Post-Viral Conditions?
Long COVID is a testament to a question that, unbeknownst to many Americans, has circulated long before the COVID-19 pandemic: Why do some viruses result in chronic, debilitating symptoms in some people post-infection?
In reality, long COVID is just another name on an already-long list of post-viral conditions that many Americans have suffered for decades. Long-term complications of common viruses, such as influenza, have existed for years prior to the coronavirus.
How have chronic post-viral conditions impacted our understanding of public health? What treatments exist to manage chronic pain and combat the other health challenges posed by these conditions? Keep reading to learn more about ongoing research and developing treatments to address long COVID and other post-viral illnesses that have existed for decades.
Long COVID Shines an Overdue Spotlight on Post-Viral Conditions
A few short decades ago, many physicians didn’t bother to treat patients suffering from chronic pain, fatigue, or other symptoms of post-viral illnesses. Many affected people were dismissed as being dramatic or imaginative.
While it’s unfortunate that a global pandemic was needed to raise awareness for a decades-old problem, millions of Americans suffering from post-infectious conditions stand to benefit from long COVID research and treatment plans.
While there are many lesser-known precursors to long-haul COVID, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a post-viral illness that has deservedly gained more attention since COVID-19. The symptoms of ME/CFS are similar to those of long COVID, such as chronic fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and crashes after exertion.
Thankfully, the pandemic has resulted in a renewed interest in patients suffering from ME/CFS, long COVID, or other post-viral conditions.
Ongoing research has contributed to a more hopeful outlook for patients who were previously ignored for decades as the “long-hauler” phenomenon continues to shine an overdue spotlight on a prevalent health crisis: the lasting negative impacts of communicable diseases and the frequency of lingering issues after routine illnesses.
Many people who contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus never made a full recovery. In fact, 25 million Americans are believed to have long COVID (also known as long-haul COVID, post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, and post-COVID conditions). Moreover, 80% of Americans claim their symptoms prevent them from accomplishing everyday tasks.
Research shows that “long-haulers” suffering from long COVID are at risk of serious complications, including:
- Heart and lung problems
- Kidney failure
- Liver injury
- Memory loss
- Psychiatric disorders
Long COVID is hardly the first of its kind. Throughout history, various pathogens have been linked to severe long-term consequences and chronic symptoms.
- ME/CFS. Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a chronic illness characterized by profound fatigue and sleep abnormalities. The condition can develop after a viral infection. Similarly to long COVID, ME/CFS can lead to extreme fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and post-exertional malaise (PEM).
- Influenza. The flu is a virus that can lead to long-term effects, such as inflammation in the brain and heart.
- Epstein-Barr. This virus is associated with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare post-viral condition in which the body attacks its own nervous system. As you may imagine, this can lead to detrimental health effects, including paralysis.
- Other routine illnesses. You may be surprised to learn that viruses both rare and routine are known to cause lingering symptoms. From strep throat to the common cold to respiratory infections, there are various pathogens that can result in chronic symptoms.
Long-Term Complications of Viral Infections
Chronic symptoms of post-viral conditions range from mild to severe to life-threatening. Affected people can face lasting complications after infection, including (but not limited to):
- Organ failure
- Vision loss
- Blood clots
- Brain fog
- Chronic fatigue
- Cognitive decline
- Kidney problems
- Heart and lung issues
- Autoimmune disorders
- Post-exertional malaise (PEM)
Challenges of Treating Post-Viral Illnesses
Physicians and patients alike have encountered significant hurdles when attempting to understand, diagnose, and treat post-viral conditions like long COVID and ME/CFS.
There is a wide range of issues that can limit progress in both the medical and scientific communities. Below are some primary reasons why diagnosing and treating post-viral illnesses can be challenging.
Lack of Funding
Researchers of ME/CFS and other post-infectious conditions have been forced to work with minimal federal funding for decades. In 2019, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) granted $15 million to ME/CFS research. Given the fact that 2.5 million U.S. people suffer from this condition, some experts went as far as to call this amount “a pittance”—especially considering that the NIH recently provided a $1.15 billion budget for long COVID research.
Lack of Education
In addition to a lack of funding, there is also a lack of awareness regarding post-viral conditions like ME/CFS. In 2018, less than one-third of U.S. medical schools even addressed ME/CFS at some point in the curriculum.
Many post-viral conditions, including long COVID and ME/CFS, lack a single diagnostic test. This is because most post-viral illnesses not only lack easily observable biomarkers.
Moreover, symptoms don’t always tell the full story. Many post-viral conditions present a shockingly vast range of symptoms that can make a formal diagnosis difficult to obtain. For example, chronic symptoms of post-acute COVID-19 can range from headaches to dementia to fatal blood clots. As you can imagine, these factors can make it all the more challenging to diagnose and treat patients with post-viral conditions.
In the 1980s, ME/CFS was nicknamed "yuppie flu" because it primarily affected white women. Patients seeking relief for chronic pain and other unexplained symptoms were dismissed without treatment. While social stigmas have improved in past decades, the issue is not yet resolved.
Various studies reveal a longstanding history of dismissing women in the medical field. Many physicians and other professionals routinely gaslight female patients about their physical and mental health, whether it's downplaying an ovarian cyst as "bad cramps" or dismissing severe pain as commonplace—only for affected women to end up in the emergency room just days or hours later. Research shows that female patients in the E.R. had to wait for 33% longer than men with similar symptoms.
Because post-viral conditions are already challenging to diagnose and treat, women and other minorities can experience enhanced hardships when it comes to receiving the care and medical attention they require.
What Causes Post-Viral Conditions?
While the exact cause of post-viral illnesses is still unknown, rest assured that the medical and scientific communities are hard at work to conduct more research and obtain the funding they need to uncover the answers that patients and their families deserve.
Various theories are circulating post-infectious conditions. Experts have proposed potential causes, such as:
- Lingering remnants of the virus in the body
- Blood clots that restrict oxygen flow to the organs
- One virus lies dormant in the body until it’s reactivated by another virus
- Hormone imbalances caused by changes in circadian rhythm
How Americans Can Be Part of the Solution
While ongoing research has yielded more answers about post-viral conditions, it’s safe to assume that our nation is still years away from developing treatments. This is why it’s more important than ever to raise public awareness, stay educated, and limit contagion by committing to healthy practices.
Although it’s been years since the coronavirus pandemic changed the world forever, experts warn Americans that this pandemic will not be the last—and if we can’t learn from past mistakes and change our ways before that happens, the consequences may be worse.
Some medical professionals say that when it comes to viruses, Americans will greatly benefit from a change in perspective. Rather than treating an unexpected illness like a minor inconvenience that throws a wrench in your gym routine or weekend plans, it’s important to acknowledge illnesses for what they are: a genuine threat to our health.
Consider the following ways you can help protect yourself and others in the public health sphere:
- Take care of yourself during and after a viral infection. The way you choose to manage your health during and after viral infection matters. While it's important to care for yourself during an infection, it's equally important to continue that same level of care post-infection. A reduction in overt symptoms doesn't mean that your body is fully healed or repaired itself overnight.
- Don’t rush back into your everyday responsibilities. It won’t do you any good to stay hellbent on work deadlines when your body is still in recovery. Consider transitioning back into your everyday routines little by little instead of throwing yourself back into the grind, as doing so can overtax your body and potentially contribute to lasting complications.
- Do your part to prevent viral infections now to avoid future complications. Masking and ventilation are still proven ways to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Even if you’re fully vaccinated, others may not be. Respect the lives of others by doing what you can to limit contagion.
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