Coronavirus can be tricky: What was originally thought to be a respiratory virus seems to have wide-ranging effects on the human body, attacking the system of blood vessels that feeds the brain, heart, kidneys and liver. Those who recover may have long-lasting symptoms that endure far beyond the relatively circumscribed, temporary effects of the flu.
A review of studies conducted by the UK National Institute for Health Research is the latest report to come to this conclusion. It warns that some coronavirus patients may experience "Long COVID," or symptoms that last for weeks or months, which can be plentiful and transient. "A common theme is that symptoms arise in one physiological system then abate, only for symptoms to arise in a different system," the NIHR report said.
The title of the report—"Living With COVID-19"—has become a reality for many people worldwide. "The overwhelming message is that this is not a linear condition," Elaine Maxwell, lead author of the study, told the Financial Times. "Many [patients] suffer a rollercoaster of symptoms moving around the body, from which they do not recover."
One respiratory specialist and member of the NIHR study group even likened it to the early days of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. "As we understood HIV infection better, we found out about all the different possible presentations of disease." he said in the FT. "Right now, as we try to define our terms, this feels like HIV research was then."
That's because, to a large extent, scientists still don't understand why the virus behaves as it does, and why it behaves differently in different people.
These are some of the possible "Long Covid" symptoms the NIHR scientists spotlighted in their report. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
Shortness of Breath
A common symptom of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. In some people, this is caused by lung damage that can be fatal. In one study, 88% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had visible lung damage six weeks after being discharged. The potentially good news is that it may be reversible: By 12 weeks, the number had fallen to 56%. But another study of hospitalized coronavirus patients found that a month after being discharged, more than 70% reported shortness of breath and 13.5% were still using oxygen at home.
According to a study published in the Lancet, 55% of people diagnosed with coronavirus have neurological symptoms three months after their diagnosis, such as difficulty concentrating or confusion (a.k.a. brain fog), personality changes, headaches and insomnia.
"Acute myocardial injury is the most commonly described cardiovascular complication in Covid19, occurring in 8–12% of all those discharged with heart failure and arrythmias," the report said.
Fatigue is perhaps the most common effect of coronavirus infection. It was reported by 100% of patients participating in the COVID Symptom Tracker. And it can last: In another study of 143 people who had been hospitalized with COVID-19, 53% reported fatigue more than two months after their diagnosis.
Hair loss is a commonly reported symptom of coronavirus infection. Experts believe it's a temporary type of shedding known as telogen effluvium, which can be caused by stress, fever, illness, or weight loss—all of which can happen during a bout with the coronavirus.
Inability to Taste or Smell
In one study published this summer in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 64% of COVID-19 patients surveyed reported a loss of smell or taste. A July survey by the CDC found that some people experienced it for weeks.
Mental Health Issues
"Previous coronavirus infections have also been associated with high levels of emotional distress," the researchers noted. "A Canadian study of 117 people with SARS [sudden acute respiratory syndrome] found 17% had not returned to work one year later and 44% had used mental health services. A systematic review of the mental health of people with SARS concluded that in the early stages of recovery there is a fear for survival and fear of infecting others. Later concerns are around perceived stigmatization, reduced quality of life, and psychological/emotional distress. Post-traumatic stress symptoms were found in high proportions of survivors even as late as 51 months after the initial infection."
How to Stay Healthy
As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear your face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.