Long COVID: Symptoms, causes and prevalence | Daily News

Long COVID: Symptoms, causes and prevalence

Recent research has revealed that a staggering number of people have suffered with lasting coronavirus symptoms months after first being infected.

Long COVID refers to a disease that can affect a number of the body’s systems sometime after the onset of initial COVID-19 symptoms. People who have mild symptoms can still get Long COVID.

Symptoms of Long COVID

Long COVID is diagnosed when people experience persistent symptoms for longer than three months after the initial infection.

Common symptoms of Long COVID include: fatigue, breathing problems, heart tremors, cognitive difficulties (brain fog) and joint ache.

Additionally, differences to taste and smell are typical symptoms of the condition.

Research by academics from University College, London (UCL) highlighted a total of 200 symptoms for Long COVID, impacting ten different organs.

Some of the Long COVID symptoms identified by the UCL team include: hallucinations, sleeping difficulties, eyesight changes, hearing problems, temporary cognitive impairment and speech loss.

Additional studies have indicated that gastro-intestinal and bladder complications, changes to the menstrual cycle and skin disorders are also signs of Long COVID.

Reports have shown that some people with Long COVID struggle to carry out simple errands, such as washing themselves and doing the food shop. Long COVID has also caused some people to forget words.

What causes Long COVID?

The condition is often caused when a person’s immune system damages the body’s own tissues when trying to kill the virus.

Impaired cells can trigger temporary cognitive decline and changes to key senses, such as taste and smell. Damaged blood vessels tend to cause cardiovascular, lung and neurological complications.

Some scientists believe another cause of Long COVID is potential virus remaining in the body and being reenergised.

This theory is evident with other infections, such as herpes and the Epstein Barr virus which triggers glandular fever.

How common is it?

New research has found that Long COVID impacts women more than men, and it is more prevalent in older people compared to children.

Long COVID is more common in those who were seriously ill with the virus in the first place, but scientists have warned that anybody can still be diagnosed with the condition.

Five percent of 60-year-olds who have had the virus are later diagnosed with Long COVID, while only two percent of 20-year-olds later go on to experience lasting symptoms, new analysis has found.

Researcher Dr. Claire Steves said: “One to two percent of 100,000 cases a day is a lot of people.”

Experts have said that more young people in the future will be diagnosed with Long COVID. However, academics have debunked rumours of children being at a greater risk of having lasting coronavirus symptoms.

Currently, no treatment options are available for Long COVID, but vaccinations are believed to improve outcomes.

Autoimmune disease?

Long COVID patients may finally get an answer as to why they’re still sick.

The National Institutes of Health of US announced on Wednesday that it’s kicking off a US$ 470 million study to figure out why COVID-19 symptoms persist for so long among many patients.

Already, research has started to coalesce around a theory: The virus may set off an autoimmune reaction that causes lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell, muscle aches, or brain fog.

“We can’t say for sure that it’s an autoimmune disease now, but it’s really starting to look like it,” John Arthur, a researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told Insider.

In a study published this month, Arthur and his colleagues suggested that some people who get COVID-19 develop ‘auto-antibodies’ that attack their own proteins – a hallmark of many autoimmune diseases. That process leads to inflammation that could trigger Long COVID.

“Everything is sort of fitting together so far – we’re just not quite totally there yet in terms of our understanding,” Arthur said.

If the theory proves true, it would have implications for COVID-19 treatments. Certain blood-pressure medications, for instance, could be used to stifle the harmful cascade of inflammation. And there’s already some evidence that vaccines help alleviate long COVID symptoms – perhaps because the shots help regulate the antibody response.

One-third of coronavirus patients have at least one persistent symptom for 12 weeks or more, according to a recent study that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. Scientists have wrestled with the mystery of why that happens for more than a year. 

“I see a lot of younger patients with chronic COVID symptoms and many of them have not even had any lung problems before COVID,” Dr. Dixie Harris, a pulmonary physician at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, told Insider. “They go from totally active, running marathons, to now on oxygen.”

What scientists do know is that when a person gets infected, their body develops antibodies to neutralize the coronavirus. But some people’s immune systems mistakenly identify those antibodies as a foreign threat themselves, so they produce auto-antibodies to fight them. That appears to be the case for many Long COVID patients.

Arthur’s team analyzed blood samples from 32 COVID-19 patients who donated plasma to the University of Arkansas, and another 15 who’d been hospitalized there. Around 81 percent of the plasma donors and 93 percent of the hospitalized patients had developed a particular auto-antibody that inhibited their ACE2 enzymes. These enzymes serve as ports of entry for the coronavirus to invade our cells – but they’re also vital to calming the immune system down.

When not enough ACE2 is present, the immune system can produce too much inflammation.

“It’s the inhibition of that ACE2 enzyme that basically is plugging up the system,” Arthur said. “It’s like if you’ve got a bunch of hair in the drain and the water starts to accumulate on top.”

But more research is needed to determine for sure whether these ACE2 antibodies cause long COVID. Researchers also aren’t sure yet whether severe infections produce more auto-antibodies than mild ones. A May study found that to be the case, but Arthur noted that long COVID is also common among people whose infections were initially mild.

Arthur’s study offers some evidence that medications used to treat high blood pressure could be effective as long COVID treatments.

ACE2 normally helps regulate blood pressure by a converting a chemical that raises blood pressure into one that enhances blood flow. Long COVID may prevent that conversion process, allowing that first chemical to produce harmful levels of inflammation. But high blood pressure medications can blunt this inflammatory response. Arthur’s study also suggests that vaccines could balance the levels of coronavirus antibodies and auto-antibodies among long COVID patients. A UK survey from March found that 57 percent of people with long COVID saw their symptoms improve after getting vaccinated.

(Diabetes UK, Business Insider)

 


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