Lungs, Heart, Other Organs At Risk Of Long-Term Coronavirus Effects

COVID-19 was first thought to be a disease that targets only the lungs. But a growing number of studies show that the infection could actually damage almost all organ systems and the effects may last long after recovery. 

Recent reports indicated that the novel coronavirus affects the lungs, heart and nervous system. An infectious diseases expert at University of California, Berkeley, said the next three or six months in the pandemic may show more long-term effects of COVID-19 as researchers look at other at-risk organs, such as the kidneys and liver, as well as other body parts like the gastrointestinal tract. "In the beginning, our model for understanding this infection was to treat it like another respiratory virus like influenza," John Swartzberg, MD, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology in the UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, told Berkeley News. "I think one of the most unfortunate and interesting things about this virus is that its interaction with us is actually far more complicated than that."

In the first half of 2020, physicians observed several persistent health complications in patients who had recovered from severe COVID-19. Swartzberg said initial reports showed the disease could speed up scarring in the lungs, which can lead to long-term shortness of breath and other respiratory difficulties. Another commonly affected organ is the heart. Swartzberg cited evidence that both the lungs and heart suffer from the effects of cytokine storms caused by the immune system’s response to COVID-19.  Some cases showed that the coronavirus also directly targets heart muscle cells. The problem may put COVID-19 survivors at risk of chronic cardiac problems, Swartzberg said. 

The central nervous system is another organ system that has been getting attention during the coronavirus pandemic. Evidence showed that the virus can directly affect neurons and cause psychological problems or cognitive defects, which Swartzberg described as "very disturbing."

Other Serious COVID-19 Complications

In some cases of COVID-19, patients appeared with abnormal clotting of the blood. Some experienced pulmonary emboli as blood clots traveled to the lungs. Other clots caused strokes that affect the vascular system of the brain. Swartzberg said both pulmonary emboli and stroke have been linked to long-term damage to the two organs. Other potential effects of COVID-19 were found in the kidneys of some patients because of excess cytokines, and in the liver and gastrointestinal tract because the coronavirus can bind to their receptors.

Recent studies also show that COVID-19 has unique effects on children. Researchers found that some young patients experienced multi-system inflammatory syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease, during and after severe infection, which affected their skin, joints, kidneys, lungs and heart and increased their risk of death. 

"I think I’ve gone through almost all the organ systems, and the ones that I think are highly likely to suffer persistent complications are lungs, the heart and maybe central nervous system," Swartzberg said in the Berkeley News article. "But, the rate at which we are learning is enormously fast. I’m sure if you come back to me in three or six months, the list will be longer in some places, but maybe we will have eliminated some potential chronic problems." He noted that scientists have yet to fully understand how the novel coronavirus triggers potentially chronic health complications. The medical community should also look into the risk of long-term problems in asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 cases. 

But there are ways to prevent serious persistent complications, according to Swartzberg. He said people should change any unhealthy habits their lifestyle, such as smoking and vaping, to avoid conditions that could worsen COVID-19, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity.

China Coronavirus COVID-19 An elderly woman arrives in an ambulance to Wuhan Red Cross Hospital after being transferred from another hospital after recovering from the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan on March 30, 2020. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images