One in five COVID-19 survivors aged 18 to 64 and a quarter of those 65 or older have developed long COVID symptoms, according to a large new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published this week. The findings underscore that millions of Americans who have been infected with the virus that changed life as we know it may continue to live with long-term side effects and complications, emphasizing the need for more research around long COVID treatment options.
For the study, CDC researchers analyzed data from 353,164 COVID-19 patients 18 or older and 1,640,776 control patients who had not tested positive for COVID-19. Following the initial infection, the COVID-19 patients were monitored for 26 clinical conditions that have been linked to post-COVID illness. More than 200 post-COVID symptoms have been reported, and the most common include brain fog, fatigue, cough, chest pain, muscle pain, gastrointestinal issues, depression, and dyspnea (increased respiratory effort), according to the National Institutes of Health.
While many are still being infected with COVID-19 each day, the new study highlights long-term concerns that infectious disease experts will need to tackle in the coming months and years. “As we’re mentally transitioning, there’s a shift in focus of what we’ve known for a while–that long COVID is going to be the next phase of this pandemic,” Thomas Russo, MD, infectious disease expert at the University of Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells SELF.
Clinicians don’t have a standard definition of long COVID yet, but some of the symptoms people are experiencing are life-changing. Dr. Russo says that during the height of the pandemic, many focused on the potential short-term consequences, asking themselves: “If I get COVID, am I going to die or not?” As a result, he adds, many people were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 illness, and, though they survived, are now experiencing debilitating health issues. Among these people, for example, are those who used to follow a rigorous exercise routine but now get winded very easily—say, by walking up a flight of stairs or doing the laundry, Dr. Russo says. Also among them are people who can’t mentally function at the same level they did pre-COVID-19: Because of “brain fog, people are no longer able to focus or perform tasks they were able to perform before. There are consequences that are quite serious and life-altering in the long run,” Dr. Russo explains.
While people may be more likely to suffer from long-term complications if they were critically ill and admitted to an intensive care unit, long COVID doesn’t just impact those who experienced severe disease; people who were asymptomatic and those who experienced mild illness can also develop long COVID symptoms, Dr. Russo says. Additionally, while long COVID is less common in children, it can occur in them as well.
Even if the estimates in the new study are high, Dr. Russo says, the research still confirms that many people will suffer from long COVID: “This is going to be a large number of people, [potentially] hundreds of millions.” To date, there have been 83,408,645 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., per the CDC. The new study also highlights the necessity of staying up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, Dr. Russo says, since they are the best tools we have to help prevent a severe COVID-19 infection. Experts know that vaccination helps protect against long COVID in some capacity, but Dr. Russo says “we’re still learning the magnitude of that protection.” A new study published in Nature Medicine, in which researchers analyzed data from millions of people registered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, suggests vaccination could decrease the risk of long COVID by 15%.
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