While an initial COVID-19 infection can range in severity from mild to deadly, medical researchers have been unsure of the reasons why the virus affects different people in varying ways. In the first year or so of the pandemic, there was also a lack of time to build up information regarding any long-term effects those who contracted the viral infection may face.
However, there is now a plethora of research to confirm that COVID-19 can negatively affect health long after the initial infection has cleared. In fact, many people who contracted the virus are now experiencing what is known as long COVID.
Initial research focused solely on those who had severe infections, and it was initially thought that only those with the worst COVID experiences would be subject to long-term effects. But recent research is shining light on the fact that those with mild cases, and even those who had the infection but presented with no symptoms at all, may develop the symptoms of long COVID. Read on as we discuss this phenomenon and answer the question: can long COVID present in asymptomatic patients?
What is long COVID?
Many people are aware of the term “long COVID” and its correlation with symptoms that persist long after recovery from an initial COVID infection. Typically, people with long COVID will experience symptoms such as:
- Brain fog
- A continued loss of smell and taste
- Muscle aches
- Chronic cough
- Heart damage
- Shortness of breath
While long COVID is now more widely understood and accepted, its effects and the people at risk of experiencing it are still being brought to light through new research, which has been made possible because of higher survival rates and more development time.
Why can someone with asymptomatic COVID-19 have long-haul symptoms?
Since new studies are being conducted surrounding long COVID, more information is available regarding its effects. But one thing that medical researchers still aren’t quite sure of is exactly why those who contracted COVID-19 but didn’t experience symptoms are still subject to negative health effects in the long run. While it can be common for those with asymptomatic viral infection to experience long-term damage, it wasn’t clinically investigated in the realm of COVID until recently.
One theory surrounding the issues that arise with long COVID in asymptomatic patients is damage that goes under the radar while the immune system tries to fight off the infection. One particular case examined passengers of a cruise ship that was subject to a two-week off-coast quarantine because of an outbreak. Close to 25% of passengers on the ship were diagnosed with COVID, and almost half of these presented with no symptoms at all.
Of those who had no symptoms, 76 people were asked to undergo a CT scan of their lungs. The CT scan found that more than half of the people who presented with no symptoms still had ground glass opacities in their lungs. There have also been reports of the same thing happening to children who caught the infection but didn’t experience any symptoms.
While no conclusion has been drawn as to whether or not this kind of damage directly leads to long COVID symptoms, it is possible that the lung damage caused by an asymptomatic infection can lead to health issues down the line.
What are some asymptomatic COVID long-term effects?
Viruses of all kinds can lead to long-term effects, and COVID is no exception. Research surrounding the long-term effects in people without symptoms have found that has many as 30–60% would later go on to develop post-COVID syndrome, or long COVID.
The symptoms that were most notable in those who were asymptomatic included:
- Shortness of breath
- Full or partial loss of smell and taste
- Brain fog
- Difficulties with concentration or memory
These symptoms are no different than those experienced by people who have long COVID following a more severe infection.
Who is most at risk for asymptomatic long COVID?
While anyone is potentially at risk for developing long COVID, recent research has found that women between the ages of 40 and 60 are far more likely to experience the symptoms of long COVID than men in the same age bracket, regardless of the severity of the initial viral infection. Although medical researchers don’t have a clear answer as to why, it could be tied to autoimmunity and the fact that autoimmune diseases are more common in women in this age bracket.
The phenomenon of long COVID in asymptomatic patients is still being investigated. As more studies are conducted and more people heal from the disease, a clearer picture may be found as to why the severity of the infection doesn’t seem to play as large a role in long-term symptoms as it was once thought. Until then, the best thing people can do is protect themselves from the infection through measures such as vaccination.