Millions of individuals who contracted COVID-19 experience lasting symptoms beyond their initial infection. Dubbed “long COVID,” this condition can cause a wide variety of chronic issues whose severity can vary from one person to the other. The emerging research on long COVID still has more questions than answers, although categorizations and studies are growing to gain a more detailed understanding of what may cause long COVID and who might be at a greater risk of developing it.
Although scientists have not yet established an official definition for long COVID, the cataloging of symptoms has grown since its emergence. It commonly disrupts someone’s daily tasks and can impact both physical and mental health.
Common long COVID symptoms include:
- Brain fog and other cognitive issues
- Change in smell or taste
- Changes in menstrual cycles
- Chest pain
- Depression or anxiety
- Digestive concerns
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Sleep problems
Long COVID symptoms exist on a wide spectrum and identifying their risk factors is a complicated process. Existing studies are only beginning to scratch the surface. Understanding probable triggers and aggravating causes would help have a clearer understanding of who is at greater risk of developing long COVID.
Probable Risk Factors for Long COVID
Current research points to a few likely risk factors such as:
- Gender: women seem more likely to develop long COVID
- Patients who experience more than five symptoms during the first week of infection
- Preexisting conditions
Although age is a probable risk factor, studies have yielded mixed results so far on middle-aged and seniors’ odds to develop long COVID. Scientists also believe that Black, Hispanic, and other populations more affected by COVID-19 may develop long COVID accordingly.
Research Methods and Available Data
One of the possible key sources for long COVID research is electronic health records. It can help scientists identify patterns. However, the millions of people experiencing long COVID make the task daunting and involves a long process.
One of the challenges for studying long COVID is that not all records include sleep disturbances, brain fog, or fatigue as not all physicians put those common concerns in their reports so research may miss these types of clues.
Researchers are also conducting studies of thousands of individuals to get regular patient reports over several months or years. These direct studies can also require blood, urine, stool, or saliva samples to help scientists analyze what is happening in people’s bodies and how long COVID impacts one or more functions. Following basic testing, doctors can request more targeted testing.
This type of study involves a wide range of participants and grows over time to eventually produce more comprehensive results. Researchers stay cautious with early observations and look to expand the study and the control group although finding individuals who never had COVID-19 can be difficult.
The Challenge of Overlapping Symptoms
One of the challenges of studying long COVID symptoms is how some common ones overlap with those of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Many individuals experiencing either or both conditions report brain fog, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. Other long COVID concerns like tachycardia and dizziness can be associated with dysautonomia, a condition affecting the nervous system.
The Epstein-Barr virus is another avenue researchers are considering as part of their comparative work on long COVID. Previous studies linked this virus to CFS in the past decades even though additional analysis is still needed to establish the virus’s role in CFS. Since the Epstein-Barr virus can cause a lifetime infection and hides in the body for a long time before reappearing, researchers are now studying whether any association between the virus and long COVID exists.
One of the key factors in understanding long COVID is financial resources for further research, which is a common concern for medical research, including for chronic fatigue syndrome. Thanks to recent funding, a comparative study between long COVID and CFS patients. Given how COVID-19 can affect any body function from the lungs to the nervous system, scientists need to conduct more tests than if the disease only had one or two targets.
Understanding how long COVID may be linked to CFS or other conditions, such as the Epstein-Barr virus and some autoimmune disorders may benefit not only individuals experiencing long COVID, but also those with other chronic conditions as doctors expand their understanding of underlying mechanisms.
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