- The findings of a new study suggest that even people with mild COVID-19 may develop long-term health complications that go well beyond the lungs.
- Experts say there are clear signs of kidney and heart disease that people should be aware of.
- Getting vaccinated is the best way to avoid developing COVID-19 and the potential for long-term side effects.
As more people are vaccinated, many of us are increasingly looking toward a future at the end of the pandemic.
But for some people, the long-term complications of the virus will last after the pandemic ends.
Now over a year from the start of the pandemic, the scientific community is learning more about the long-term complications and effects of COVID-19.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers found that individuals with more severe disease at the start of their illness have a greater risk of long-term complications such as heart and kidney disease secondary to COVID-19.
Through analysis of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs database, Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, an assistant professor in the school of medicine at Washington University in Saint Louis, examined the health outcomes of individuals 6 months after having COVID-19.
They found that those who had the virus had a higher risk of several conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and kidney complications.
Globally there have been more than 149 million cases of COVID-19, and research suggests that approximately 10 percent — or 14.9 million people —will be considered “long-haulers,” those who experience symptoms more than 4 weeks after the onset of COVID-19.
Effects of long-haul COVID-19
Some people who’ve had COVID-19 may experience multiple conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disorders, long into the future.
While the exact cause and link between COVID-19 and long-term complications isn’t currently known, some experts suggest it could be a result of inflammation from the virus, or possibly a revelation of an underlying condition.
“There are several ways to interpret these findings,” said Dr. Michael Goyfman, director of clinical cardiology at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York.
“One is that COVID-19 directly resulted in these various health consequences due to either the inflammation caused by the virus, the body’s response to the infection via the immune system, etc.,” Goyfman explained.
“Another view is that these patients were somewhat sicker to begin with, so people who had a worse outcome with COVID were those who already had these conditions, and perhaps their hospitalization with COVID was merely the first sign of their underlying issues,” Goyfman said.
Although COVID-19 largely affects the lungs, with the interconnected nature of the body, it’s not unreasonable to see metabolic, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neurological complications secondary to the disease.
Symptoms to look for
- chest discomfort
- pain or pressure that spreads to your arm (right or left)
- sweating for no obvious reason
- sensation of an irregular heartbeat
- exhaustion that comes on easily
- frequent need to urinate
- urine that’s foamy or bloody
- swollen ankles and feet
- dry and itchy skin
- weight loss or poor appetite
- extreme thirst without reason
- numbness or tingling in your hands or feet
- intense hunger
- continued fatigue
- frequent urination
Who’s at risk?
At this point, health experts aren’t sure who’s going to have long-haul symptoms and who will not.
Some people who only had mild disease will still have a risk of developing long-term side effects.
At this point, the best bet to protect yourself is to get vaccinated — even if you’ve already had COVID-19.
A vaccine will likely protect you from reinfection with a potentially more dangerous strain or variant of the virus.
“The best practice for prevention of having COVID complications remains vaccination. Vaccines have shown to prevent severe COVID illness and protect people that may have had the infection previously from getting sick from a newer variant of the virus,” said Dr. Thomas Gut, associate chair of medicine and director of ambulatory care services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.
The bottom line
This new study’s findings don’t suggest that everyone will experience long-term COVID-19 side effects, but that even people with only mild disease may develop lasting consequences that go beyond the lungs.
Heart disease, diabetes, and kidney complications are all possible for those who’ve had COVID-19.
According to Gut, “Although much about the long-term COVID complications is still poorly understood, I’m confident as time passes, we will come up with more effective strategies and treatments for those suffering from lingering health problems.”