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Medical professional uses a swab to test a patient for covid

What is Long Covid?

In a nutshell, Long Covid is a term that describes a wide range of lingering COVID-19 symptoms. Long Covid symptoms last anywhere from four to twelve weeks, or more.

Some studies have shown that about half of unvaccinated Covid survivors experience Long Covid. When Covid survivors are vaccinated, the Long Covid rate drops to about 19%.

The symptoms of Covid include a wide range of features. There are over 205 known Long Covid symptoms.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the precise cause of Long Covid, the research is ongoing. However, researchers have identified three leading theories for the cause of Long Covid. Read on to learn more.

Long Covid Theories

There are three main theories of why people experience Long Covid.

Theory 1

Components of the virus still exist within the body and are periodically reactivated, which causes an infected individual to experience symptoms.

Theory 2

Chronic inflammation within the body can trigger Covid symptoms. Chronic inflammation is caused by the remaining inflammatory cells that impact the organs and prompt symptoms of inflammation such as stiffness and fatigue.

Theory 3

This theory suggests that Long Covid is an autoimmune reaction which means that the immune system is working in overdrive because the body is creating new, damaging molecules that assault its tissues.

Additional Diagnoses Due to Long Covid

Long Covid has prompted a slew of other issues for survivors, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorders (one in three)
  • Sleep disorders (one in four)
  • Depression (one in five)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (one in eight)

Due to the wide range of symptoms of Long Covid, medicine surrounding the virus must be highly personalized. In fact, researchers say that variability is the only constant regarding Long Covid symptoms.

Autoantibodies May Be a Factor in Susceptibility to Long Covid

Autoantibodies are typically linked with autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Out of four risk factors, the presence of autoantibodies within the immune system is the most significant risk factor for developing Long Covid. This suggests that those with autoimmune disorders are the most likely group to be severely affected by Long Covid symptoms.

Testing for Long Covid

What is interesting to note about Long Covid is that those who experience symptoms do not often continue testing positive for an active infection.

Long Covid more commonly occurs in patients with severe Covid, but about 19% of those who have asymptomatic infections experience the virus for the long haul.

Similarities Between Long Covid and ME/CFS

There are striking commonalities between Long Covid and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)—a debilitating, complicated condition that impacts 1 to 2.5 million people in the United States.

Some of the symptoms experienced in both cases include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Unrefreshing sleep or “post-exertional malaise”
  • Issues with memory and attention (“brain fog”)
  • Pain

Studies show that the onset of Long Covid and ME/CFS (75% of cases) are often traced to a viral infection.

It is unclear whether individuals with Long Covid are also experiencing ME/CFS, or if it is something else entirely.

Chronic Fatigue is a Leading Symptom

Chronic fatigue that lasts longer than four weeks occurs in about 40% of individuals who are initially infected with Covid.

Unfortunately, chronic fatigue can significantly impact the quality of life of those who experience the symptom. The costs may be substantial, including a lack of accessibility to healthcare resources as they become more and more strained, in addition to lost or delayed educational or financial opportunities.

Long Covid Heart Health is a Concern

Experts have discovered that Long Covid can harm the heart in several ways. Unfortunately, it is possible for heart health issues to linger in those who have already recovered from Covid for up to a year after the infection goes away.

Survivors of Covid are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in a number of categories, including:

  • Cerebrovascular disorders
  • Dysrhythmias
  • Ischemic and nonischemic heart disease
  • Pericarditis
  • Myocarditis
  • Heart failure
  • Thromboembolic disease

The risk and pervasiveness of cardiovascular conditions among those who survive Long Covid are substantial.

Irreversible Damage is Possible

According to Dr. Thomas Gut, D.O., “Multiple mechanisms ranging from inflammatory damage to the muscle, blood flow-related damage, and even stress-related heart muscle strain can lead to long-term worsening of existing heart disease or even new structural disease that may not be reversible.”

Dr. Gut suggests that those who notice new chest pain or aggravated shortness of breath during exertion after recovering from Covid should speak with a physician about these symptoms because they may provide an indication that you are experiencing ongoing heart damage.

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