Long-Term Effects of COVID-19: Beyond the Acute Phase

    Professor Krzysztof Tomasiewicz, Head of the Department and Clinic of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of Lublin, warns that COVID-19 can lead to distant effects even after the acute phase of the disease. Some patients, even after 2-3 years, do not fully recover from COVID-19.

    COVID-19’s acute phase is typically considered an infection lasting up to four weeks, the usual duration of an infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Beyond this period, from the 4th to the 12th week, persistent symptomatic COVID-19 may occur. If symptoms persist or emerge after 12 weeks, and no other diagnosis explains them, it is referred to as post-COVID syndrome or “long COVID.”

    According to the World Health Organization (WHO), long COVID is recognized as the continuation or development of new symptoms three months after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection. These symptoms must persist for at least two months, with no alternative explanation. These symptoms can resemble those in the acute phase or be entirely different.

    Long-term effects of COVID-19 include mood disorders, brain fog, headaches, depression, anxiety, heart rhythm disturbances, chest pain, electrolyte imbalances, muscle and joint pain, skin changes, constipation or diarrhea, and stomach pain. Recent research also highlights potential neurological complications, such as brain inflammation.

    Professor Wanhong Zheng from West Virginia University noted an increased diagnosis of schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders in individuals who had experienced severe COVID-19 infections. This association is linked to inflammatory processes in the brain after COVID-19, leading to elevated levels of kynurenic acid, also found in individuals with schizophrenia.

    Professor Krzysztof Tomasiewicz emphasizes the emerging cases of autoimmune diseases linked to COVID-19, such as vasculitis, rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis, and lupus.

    Even milder variants of the virus, like Omicron, can lead to long-term complications. Dr. Paweł Grzesiowski, a pediatric specialist and epidemic threats expert, highlights the potential damage to the heart, lungs, brain, intestines, and immune system even after a mild or asymptomatic infection.

    The SARS-CoV-2 virus can weaken the immune system by altering or reducing certain immune cells, making individuals more susceptible to other illnesses. Repeated infections with different variants may increase the risk of complications.

    Professor Agnieszka Szuster-Ciesielska from Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin clarifies that, unlike HIV, SARS-CoV-2 damages to the immune system are reversible, and the body can regenerate immune cells after virus elimination. Unlike HIV, where dysfunction of immune cells is irreversible, SARS-CoV-2-related immune system issues can be restored.

    While recovery from COVID-19 is often possible, the long-term effects highlight the complexity and variability of the virus’s impact on different individuals and organs. Ongoing research is crucial for understanding and addressing the diverse consequences of COVID-19 beyond the acute phase.

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