What are the long-term effects of COVID-19?

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Most people who develop coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) recover within 2–6 weeks, but some experience lasting symptoms. Others with severe COVID-19 may develop complications, require rehabilitation after a hospital stay, or both.

In addition to the physical impact of COVID-19, people may also experience changes in their mental health.

Below, we describe the long-term effects of COVID-19 on physical and mental health and explore the resources available for help.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

What we know about the long-term effects

A female doctor wearing a mask discussing the long term effects of coronavirus with a patient in her office.
Image credit: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images.

Because COVID-19 is a new disease, scientists are unsure about the effects months or years after the initial illness.

Researchers have theorized that the virus responsible for COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), may cause similar effects to other coronaviruses, such as those that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

According to a 2020 study, around 30% of people who recovered from severe SARS or MERS had long-term lung abnormalities. A 2009 study found that 40% of people who survived SARS still experienced chronic fatigue about 3.5 years later, on average.

But while SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are caused by viruses from the same family, there are key differences among them, as the 2020 study highlights. For this reason, looking to the other two diseases does not provide a reliable way to predict COVID-19’s long-term effects.

Research into the impact of COVID-19 is ongoing. Initiatives such as the COVID Symptom Study are tracking peoples’ symptoms and the long-term consequences of the disease via a mobile app.

In mild or moderate cases

Most people who develop COVID-19 experience a mild or moderate illness that improves on its own. However, some people who have had a mild or moderate illness go on to develop lasting symptoms that can be severe — even after they have recovered from the initial infection.

When these symptoms are prolonged, people sometimes refer to the issue as “long COVID” or to the people who have it as “long-haulers.”

People with mild or moderate COVID-19 often go on to report:

  • extreme fatigue
  • muscle weakness
  • a low-grade fever
  • trouble concentrating
  • lapses in memory
  • mood changes
  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches
  • a sensation of pins and needles
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • a loss of taste and smell
  • a sore throat
  • difficulties swallowing
  • skin rashes
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • the new onset of diabetes or high blood pressure

These symptoms may last for weeks or months after the body has cleared the virus.

It seems that anyone, including young people and those with no preexisting health conditions, can develop long COVID. Citing a telephone survey, the World Health Organization (WHO) observe that 20% of people aged 18–34 reported prolonged symptoms.

In severe cases

Around 10–15% of people who develop COVID-19 experience severe symptoms, and approximately 5% become critically ill. People with severe symptoms can also experience long COVID.

In addition, people with a more severe form of the illness may be more likely to experience complications. As the WHO note, the complications can involve damage to:

  • The lungs: An August 2020 study found that people with severe COVID-19 are often discharged with signs of pulmonary fibrosis, a type of lung damage. In some people, it can cause long-term breathing difficulties.
  • The heart: According to a June 2020 review, 20–30% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have signs that the illness has affected their heart muscle. The researchers speculate that in some people, COVID-19 may also cause myocarditis, inflammation of this muscle.
  • The nervous system: An April 2020 study with 214 participants found that people with severe COVID-19 were more likely to experience neurological manifestations, such as dizziness, nerve pain, and impaired consciousness.

Currently, doctors are not sure how these complications will affect people in the long term.

People who spend time in the hospital and require mechanical ventilation may also experience other difficulties. A July 2020 study lists the following complications of ventilator treatment:

  • chipped teeth
  • lacerated lips, tongue, or throat
  • injured vocal cords
  • infection
  • hypoxia
  • hypotension
  • collapsed lung
  • heart rhythm problems

People who leave the hospital after having COVID-19 need ongoing support and rehabilitation to help them recover.

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