The majority of people who have COVID-19 recover completely within a few weeks. But some people– even those who had mild versions of the disease– continue to experience symptoms after their initial recovery.
These people sometimes describe themselves as “long-haulers,” and the conditions have been called “post-COVID-19 syndrome” or “long COVID-19.” These health problems also are sometimes called “post-COVID-19 conditions.” These health issues are generally considered to be effects of COVID-19 that persist for more than four weeks after people have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Older individuals and people with several serious medical conditions are the most likely to experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms, but even young, otherwise healthy people can feel ill for weeks to months after infection.
Common signs and symptoms that remain over time consist of:
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Joint pain
- Chest pain
- Memory, concentration or sleep problems
- Muscle pain or headache
- Rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Loss of smell or taste
- Depression or anxiety
- Dizziness when standing
- Worsened symptoms after physical or mental activities
Organ damage caused by COVID-19
Although COVID-19 is seen as a disease that predominantly affects the lungs, it can damage many other organs, as well. This organ damage may raise the risk of long-lasting health problems.
Organs that may be impacted by COVID-19 include:
Imaging tests taken months after recovery from COVID-19 have shown lasting damage to the heart, even in individuals that experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms. This may raise the risk of heart failure or other heart problems in the future.
The kind of pneumonia often linked to COVID-19 can cause long-standing damage to the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs. The resulting scar tissue can cause long-term breathing problems.
Even in young people, COVID-19 can cause strokes, seizures and Guillain-Barre syndrome– a condition that causes temporary paralysis. COVID-19 also can increase the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some adults and children experience multisystem inflammatory syndrome after they have been infected with COVID-19. In this condition, some organs and tissues become severely inflamed.
Blood clots, blood vessel problems
COVID-19 can make blood cells more likely to clump and create clots. While large clots can cause heart attacks and strokes, much of the heart damage caused by COVID-19 is believed to stem from small clots that block tiny blood vessels, or capillaries, in the heart.
Other parts of the body affected by blood clots include the lungs, legs, liver and kidneys. COVID-19 also can weaken blood vessels and cause them to leak, which results in potentially long-lasting problems with the liver and kidneys.
Issues with mood, fatigue
People that have severe symptoms of COVID-19 often need to be treated in a hospital’s ICU with mechanical support, such as ventilators to breathe. Simply surviving this experience can make a person more likely to later develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
Because it’s difficult to predict long-term outcomes from COVID-19, researchers are examining the long-term effects seen in related infections, such as the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
Many people that have recovered from SARS have gone on to develop chronic fatigue syndrome, a complex condition characterized by severe fatigue that worsens with physical or mental activity but doesn’t get better with rest. The same may be true for people who have been infected with COVID-19.
COVID-19 outcomes still not known
Much is still unknown about how COVID-19 will impact people over time, but research is ongoing. Scientists suggest that health care providers closely monitor people that have been infected with COVID-19 to see how their organs function after recovery.
Many large medical centers are opening specialized clinics to care for people who have chronic symptoms or similar illnesses after they recover from COVID-19. Support groups are available, too.
It’s important to keep in mind that most individuals who are infected with COVID-19 recover quickly. But the potentially long-lasting problems from COVID-19 make it even more important to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by following preventative measures. This includes using masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds, receiving a vaccine when available and keeping hands clean.