The Lamen

Long COVID remains an unexplained herd of symptoms

A bar graph for the breast cancer rates among women of different ethnicities.

With over 200 symptoms of long COVID identified, the condition does not limit itself to the previously believed respiratory disorders. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is now believed to find sanctuary in distant locations of our bodies, where our defenses are not as vigilant – resulting in persistent infections, the full scope of which we are yet to decipher.

Photo: DALL·E

Published on Aug 11, 2023

Knowing the number of infections and deaths that COVID-19 caused is just half the puzzle solved, especially when a troop of symptoms known as “sequelae” can linger for years after the initial infection.

  • The Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection, also referred to as “PASC” or “long COVID” includes symptoms like fatigue, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, “brain fog,” and anxiety, ranging from mild to incapacitating.
  • Long COVID is estimated to occur in at least 10 to 20 percent of cases, which suggests at least 65 million individuals around the world have long COVID.

A study based on an analysis of nearly 10,000 participants found 37 symptoms to be more common in infected participants at six months or longer after SARS-CoV-2 infection.

  • The researchers sifted these down to 12 symptoms that “best differentiated people who were COVID-infected,” which include malaise after exertion, fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, gastrointestinal symptoms, palpitations, changes in sexual desire, loss of smell or taste, increased thirst, chronic cough, chest pain, and abnormal movements.
  • Long COVID was also found to be more common in participants infected during the “pre-Omicron era.” Additionally, people who were unvaccinated or experienced multiple infections were more likely to have long COVID.
  • This is the first study reporting results as part of NIH’s RECOVER initiative, a $1.15 billion endeavor to “rapidly improve our understanding of and ability to predict, treat, and prevent PASC, including long COVID.”

However, this study does not capture all the manifestations of long COVID – with the condition being associated with over 200 symptoms.

  • Although initially recognized as a respiratory illness, COVID-19 has been shown to damage various organ systems, primarily due to inflammation and immune-mediated response rather than direct infection.
  • Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 hide in “immuno-privileged sites,” also known as “sanctuary tissues” in the human body – which are not under as active surveillance by our immune cells, which could attribute to a persistent infection.

Other commonly reported symptoms of long COVID include muscle pain, joint pain, headaches, depression, and anxiety. Some patients may also experience damage to the heart, lungs, or other organs.

How brain fog became an overnight sensation.

People reported problems like memory loss, confusion, and difficulty focusing a year into the pandemic — a condition that is popularly known as “brain fog,” indicating a lingering mental fog.

As more COVID patients reported struggling with brain fog even months after the infection, studies identified its prevalence to be up to 30 percent in long COVID patients.

These cases rapidly shifted the attention of researchers, with many now identifying long COVID as a neurological condition whose long-term implications we are yet to know — but one which may cause long-term difficulties with memory and reasoning.