By Ryan Blethen Seattle Times staff reporter
Nearly eight months after the pandemic was declared, researchers are gaining a more complete understanding of how the new coronavirus affects people.
One thing they’re noticing as time goes on: some people diagnosed with COVID-19 feel sick long after contracting the virus.
Some of these patients, known as “long haulers,” have experienced symptoms for more than six months after being infected. For this week’s FAQ Friday, we’re looking at their plight, including which symptoms linger and why.
Can COVID-19 have long-term health effects? What are they?
The long-term effects of COVID-19 are still being understood because this virus is new, said Dr. Jennifer Ross, acting professor of medicine, infectious diseases and global health at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Ross recently reviewed the available literature about long-term illnesses connected to COVID-19 for a state Department of Health report. She found that many people hospitalized with COVID-19 experience lingering symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fatigue, or even memory problems, months after leaving the hospital. Even people who aren’t hospitalized can have a cough and fatigue for weeks after they are sick, she said.
“I was surprised with how commonly people continued to have symptoms after their illness,” Ross said. “We know that, when people are hospitalized, that it takes some time to recover — even from pneumonia, for more common causes — but this was more than I expected.”
Lauren Nichols, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 10, told The Atlantic magazine in August that she had tremors for a month, a fever for three months and night sweats for four months. Five months in — at day 150 — she still had severe nausea, extreme fatigue, bulging veins, excessive bruising, an erratic heartbeat, short-term memory loss, gynecological problems, brain fog and sensitivity to light and sounds.
“She wakes up gasping for air twice a month,” The Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote. “It still hurts to inhale.”
Nichols isn’t alone. There are multiple online support groups like Survivor Corps and Body Politic with thousands of members who report lingering symptoms after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Those struggling with a prolonged illness may also face psychological symptoms. A University of Maryland psychiatrist who has been working with COVID-19 patients estimates that between one-third and one-half of patients dealt with some kind of mental health issue.
What causes long haulers to have symptoms for months, and who is more susceptible to prolonged illness?
Why COVID-19 is so sticky isn’t completely understood, but immunologists speculate that long haulers house fragments of viral genes that aren’t infectious but can trip an aggressive immune response.
David Putrino, a neuroscientist and rehabilitation specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who has worked with and surveyed long haulers, found that most are women, he told The Atlantic.
The average age of those in Putrino’s survey was 44, and most were healthy before being infected with the coronavirus.
“It’s scary because, in the states that are surging, we have all these young people going out thinking they’re invincible, and this could easily knock them out for months,” he said.
Because of the emerging evidence that COVID-19 can have lasting and damaging long-term impacts, people need to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe, Ross said.
“It’s a good reminder for all of us to do everything we can to prevent infection in ourselves and our communities,” she said. “There are still many unknowns about this new virus, and we may not know the full picture of all the symptoms yet.”
5 simple things you can do to keep yourself and others safe
1. Wear a mask when you’re not at home.
2. Being outside is safer than being inside.
3. Avoid gatherings of more than five people.
4. Stay at least 6 feet away from other people at all times.
5. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.