Long COVID, also known as post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection or PASC, occurs when symptoms of COVID-19 or other health complications persist long after a person has recovered from the initial infection. While not everyone who has COVID will develop long-haul symptoms, research has found that over half of the population that previously became infected with the virus will experience some symptoms post-COVID.
With so many people suffering from these long-term effects, it’s beginning to become clearer what tell-tale signs there are to look out for following recovery from the viral infection. Just as COVID seems to affect many systems of the body, so does long COVID, and people with the disorder can develop symptoms that impact various areas of their health. So, what are the most common tell-tale signs that you have long COVID?
What are the most common long-term effects of COVID-19?
When someone develops a post-COVID condition, they are subject to symptoms that that are either new, recurring, or develop into chronic and long-lasting ailments. These symptoms can continue for at least four weeks, but in some cases, a person can be afflicted for months. Recent studies have found that even people who were asymptomatic during a COVID infection can develop a post-COVID condition.
While each person experiences COVID and post-COVID syndrome differently, there are some more common effects of the long-term condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common symptoms associated with long COVID are likely to occur in “different combinations” and can include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Feeling tired or fatigued
- Post-exertional malaise (symptoms that worsen after a person performs either a mental or physical task)
- Brain fog, which includes difficulties concentrating or thinking
- A new or worsened cough
- Pain in the chest, stomach, joints, or muscles
- Heart palpitations
- Gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling lightheaded when standing
- A new rash
- Changes in mood such as an increase in depressive feelings or anxiety
- Changes or a loss of smell or taste
- Menses disruptions
When a person develops these symptoms following a COVID infection, regardless of the severity, it is likely that they have long COVID.
Long COVID symptoms and the systems affected
The symptoms above are considered to be signs that a person has long COVID. The systems in the body that are generally affected by long COVID and their resulting symptoms are:
- General: fatigue, mood changes
- Heart: heart palpitations, dizziness or lightheadedness
- Lungs: Breathing issues
- Nervous system: Difficulties concentrating, thinking or focusing
Because so many bodily systems can all be negatively impacted by long COVID, it is hard to determine what a person will experience and how it will affect them. One person may only develop symptoms that affect their general wellbeing, whereas others will specifically have their nervous system affected. In some cases, all systems can be impacted, although it is more common that a person only experiences some effects and not all.
What are some of the lingering effects of COVID-19?
Research is beginning to show just how long COVID is affecting the body, and some lingering effects of the viral infection have begun to come to light. One such effect involves the immune system. During a COVID-19 infection, the immune system must fight off the virus. To do this, it kicks into overdrive. Following that physiological trauma, some people have begun to develop autoimmune disease.
Studies have looked at how this happens and found that when a person has a severe infection, they start to produce a lot of antibodies, some of which respond to virus particles that wouldn’t typically be recognizable. These small pieces of the virus can also appear the same as human proteins to the body; this can cause the production of autoantibodies, which attack healthy human cells in autoimmune disease. When autoimmune diseases develop because of a severe COVID infection, any organ system or multiple organ systems can be affected, including the lungs, kidneys, heart, skin, and brain.
Another long-term consequence of COVID-19 is a condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS. It involves widespread inflammation in the body, and although it is rare, it is a serious condition. The signs and symptoms of MIS include:
- Gastrointestinal issues such as stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Bloodshot eyes
- Signs of low blood pressure including lightheadedness or dizziness
- A skin rash
- A fever that won’t go away
MIS requires immediate treatment. Signs of MIS that prompt emergency medical care include pressure and pain in the chest, confusion, severe pain in the abdomen, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and skin, lips, or nailbeds that change color to pale gray or blue.
The reason why some people develop long COVID while others do not isn’t yet clear, but as it stands, more than half of those who recover from an initial infection will experience some sort of lingering effects.