Since the start of the pandemic, scientists and leading researchers from around the world have united in the quest to find a solution. The race to find a vaccine was one that resulted in scientific breakthroughs and while it’s certainly helped ease the severity of infection, when it comes to Covid-19, it seems clear that we will continue living with the disease for the foreseeable future. But as more details surrounding the coronavirus and its symptoms emerge, mystery continues to surround long Covid: a chronic illness with a wide variety of symptoms that are often unexplainable as far as conventional lab testing is concerned.
Millions of people have come to be diagnosed with long Covid, but even still their conditions vary significantly, with some suffering exhaustion and others experiencing cognitive problems, vascular damage and blood clots, and even oxygen limitations. The exact cause of long Covid is unknown but new research is beginning to paint a more broad and comprehensive understanding of just what such an experience is like for sufferers and why it is so debilitating.
As the New York Times reports, studies have found that 10 to 30 per cent of people infected with coronavirus may develop long-term symptoms. While it’s unknown just why some experience long Covid and not others, four factors have emerged that increase the risk: high levels of viral RNA early during an infection, the presence of certain autoantibodies, the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus and having Type 2 diabetes.
Compared to other Covid-19 patients, those suffering from long Covid tend to have disrupted immune systems. This chronic immune dysfunction after a coronavirus infection is believed to potentially set off a chain of symptoms throughout the body. As the New York Times suggests, “Researchers have also found evidence that Covid may trigger a lasting and damaging autoimmune response. Studies have found surprisingly high levels of autoantibodies, which mistakenly attack a patient’s own tissues, many months after an initial infection.” It could also be the case that this initial viral infection triggers chronic inflammation, which could reactive other viruses in the body that are otherwise dormant.
For many who experience long Covid, a common symptom has been shortness of breath and difficulty exercising. Studies have found that dysfunction in the circulatory system might impair the flow of oxygen to muscles and other tissues, therefore limiting aerobic capacity and causing severe fatigue. This could be a result of chronic inflammation, which may damage nerve fibres that help control circulation, leading to small fiber neuropathy. Damaged fibers are associated with a malfunction of automatic functions like heart rate, breathing and digestion.
While those suffering long Covid were often dismissed in the past, doctors are now waking up to the reality of the condition and in some countries, there are even post-Covid clinics and recovery programs for patients.