The immediate effects of COVID are not the only concern of contracting the virus. As case rates continue to rise, researchers are learning more about long COVID, which can cause potentially debilitating lingering symptoms or even new health problems months after the initial COVID infection subsides. A new study may indicate how to stop it.
There’s still a lot we don’t understand about long COVID, which is technically known by its scientific name post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, or PASC. But we know it’s surprisingly common. As SELF reported in June, a large-scale study of COVID patients found that a month or more after testing positive, more than 23% went to see a doctor reporting a new health problem – which ranged from fog cerebral and migraines to chronic pain and skin problems. Symptoms of long COVID were more common in patients with severe COVID infections, but as the researchers noted, lingering effects were present in more than a quarter of those with a mild case and in nearly 20 % of asymptomatic people. Since then, larger-scale research has suggested the problem may be even more common. Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine conducted a study on more than 250,000 unvaccinated people. Their findings, published in the journal Open JAMA Network in October, found that six months after being infected, more than half of patients reported persistent COVID symptoms.
New research published this week in the journal Cell sheds light on why some people have long COVID and others don’t. In a study of 200 COVID patients, researchers identified four factors that emerged early in a COVID infection and appeared to be predictive of long COVID symptoms in participants: the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood ( aka viral load), having type 2 diabetes, reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus (something many people have dormant in their system after a childhood infection) and the presence of specific autoantibodies that attack by mistake the body’s own tissues. (Regarding the frequency of long COVID symptoms, 37% of patients in the study reported three or more long COVID symptoms two to three months after being infected, through The New York Times.)
« I think this research underscores the importance of making measurements early in the disease course to understand how to treat patients, even though we don’t really know yet how we’re going to use all of this information, » Jim said. Heath, Ph.D., author of the study and president of the Institute for Systems Biology, told the Time. In other words, the research is still early. Although more data is needed to confirm the findings and translate them into a treatment pathway, this points to a scientific way for doctors to diagnose long COVID and possibly prevent it.
For now, the best way to prevent long COVID is to get vaccinated. As SELF has previously reported, getting fully vaccinated can halve the risk of long-lasting COVID, according to a study conducted in the UK. The study, which included data from more than one million people, was conducted before the booster was widely available, so « fully vaccinated » was defined as having either two injections of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one injection of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine.
Consider the statistics on the relatively high likelihood of developing long COVID yet another reason not to intentionally contract COVID in an effort to boost your immunity. Get boosted and wear a mask if necessary to protect yourself and others.