What Causes Long COVID?

While many people fully recover from COVID-19 after overcoming the infection, some are left with symptoms that continue to persist way after battling the disease. This phenomenon has been baffling scientists and medical experts for months. But key findings are starting to shed light on what could really be causing long COVID. 

What Is Long COVID?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described long COVID as a condition wherein the effects of a novel coronavirus infection last long term. In this case, symptoms of COVID-19 become chronic, and patients are left with no choice but to endure them months after their initial recovery.

Long COVID is believed to be likely in people with underlying conditions, as the virus can damage their lungs, heart, brain and other organs. What’s strange is that even healthy people can get down with post-COVID-19 syndrome months after infection, according to Mayo Clinic

Common signs and symptoms found in long COVID patients include fatigue, shortness of breath, memory and concentration problems, chest pain, joint pain and headache. Others also suffer dizziness when standing, depression or anxiety and fever, among others. 

Potential Causes Of Long COVID Symptoms

Though there is still no hard evidence on what is causing long COVID, there are clues pointing to autoantibodies, cytokines and immune cells as the ones possibly responsible for the lingering symptoms. 

Back in September, a breakthrough study found that 1 in 5 hospitalized COVID-19 patients developed self-attacking antibodies. Researchers at the time noted that the autoantibody levels in the patients were similar to what’s seen in people with autoimmune disease. 

This week, Yale University’s Professor of Immunobiology Akiko Iwasaki told NPR that they were able to spot unusual levels of cytokines in long haulers. Cytokines are proteins that serve as chemical messengers.

“We are finding elevated cytokines in long-COVID patients and we're trying to decode what those cytokines mean. We're also seeing some distinct autoantibody reactivity and are trying to find out what those antibodies are doing and whether they are causing harm,” Iwasaki was quoted as saying.

University of California, San Francisco’s Dr. Steven Deeks, who conducted a similar study, shared that they found elevated levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 in long COVID patients. Deeks said that this could mean the acute COVID-19 infection led to an inflammatory state that caused the symptoms to linger in some people.

Another study discovered that the immune system cells called T-cells display unusual behavior in long haulers, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 could just be hiding somewhere in the bodies of chronic sufferers after their initial recovery. 

Implications Of The Findings

Although the studies did not really determine the main cause of long COVID, their findings could help medical experts deal with long COVID cases. For the researchers, their findings reinforce the use of some methods when treating chronic COVID-19 patients. 

For instance, certain antiviral drugs can be used to deal with a possibly hiding virus. Another is the use of certain drugs to calm down the aggressiveness of the immune system following an infection. Last would be the administration of the vaccine, which has already been reported to have a positive effect on some long haulers

There is no denying that more research is needed to fully understand chronic COVID-19. Nevertheless, the recent discoveries are just as important, since they tell us that we are on the right track to finding a solution to the problem.

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