Long COVID not only causes lingering symptoms from the initial infection with many people, but it can be deadly too. According to a new analysis of death certificates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long Covid has caused or contributed to at least 3,500 deaths in the United States. "It's not one of the leading causes of death, but, considering that this is the first time that we've looked at it and that long Covid is an illness that we're learning more about day after day, the major takeaway is that it is possible for somebody to die and for long Covid to have played a part in their death," said Farida Ahmad, a health scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC who led the study.
"This is just scratching the surface — this is a first look," David Putrino, the director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who was not involved in the study, told the New York Times. The Times reports, Putrino "said the study appeared to be primarily capturing deaths of people who experienced serious initial infection with the coronavirus and who survived that phase but went on to have organ damage and other severe complications. He said other deaths related to long Covid should be studied, including deaths by suicide of people who had devastating post-Covid symptoms."
The study found age, sex and ethnicity play a factor. "The long COVID death rate from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022, was highest among adults aged 85 and over, non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native people, and males. Non-Hispanic Asian people had the lowest death rate." Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with doctors who shared what to know about long COVID and signs that indicate you could have it. As always, please consult with your physician for medical advice.
What to Know About Long COVID
Dr. Evelyn Huang, an emergency medicine resident physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital tells us, "As we all know, COVID-19 is relatively new so there is a lot more that needs to be found out about post-COVID conditions (also known as long COVID). But there is a wide range of symptoms and they can last for weeks or even years. Some symptoms can include excessive tiredness/fatigue, fevers, chest pain, cough, headaches, difficulty concentrating, joint pains, or changes to their menstrual cycle. I suspect that there will be changes to this list as more research is done on long COVID."
Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies adds, "COVID-19 has been a global pandemic since early 2020, and as cases continue to rise in many countries, cases of long COVID are also being reported more frequently. Long COVID is the term used to describe persistent symptoms that linger for weeks or months after initial infection with the virus. Long COVID is becoming an increasingly well-understood phenomenon due to its rising prevalence. While it is clear that the long-term effects of the virus can not be ignored, there is still limited knowledge of exactly what this will entail for those affected. Many people experience various symptoms, including fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and brain fog. In contrast, others suffer from more serious conditions such as the heart condition myocarditis or persistent breathlessness. It is also possible to suffer from mental health issues if you have had long COVID."
How Long COVID Can Affect Daily Life
Dr. Huang explains, "How long COVID can affect daily life will depend on symptoms. For example, if someone is dealing with excessive tiredness or difficulty with thinking they may have a hard time navigating their daily chores and work. If people have long lasting pain that can certainly limit mobility. The stress and anxiety can be hard on both the person experiencing long COVID and their caregivers and family members. Take the time to check in with yourself and develop healthy coping strategies, such as spending time with loved ones, exercise, and therapy."
Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Long COVID can drastically affect daily life in many ways. It is an ongoing health condition with symptoms that can persist for months or even years after a person has been infected with the coronavirus. Long-term effects of the virus can range from physical fatigue and breathlessness to mental health problems like depression. These symptoms can majorly impact the quality of life as affected individuals may struggle to complete daily tasks or even interact with others due to feeling down or weak. In addition, people with long COVID might need more frequent medical checkups and tests, putting an added burden on healthcare systems and resources. With most cases showing lingering symptoms lasting eight weeks or longer, we must continue our efforts to reduce transmission to prevent long-term hardships for those affected by this virus."
Long COVID Usually Affects People Who Had Initial Symptoms of the Illness, But You Can Have the Virus and Not Know It Until Signs of Long COVID
According to Dr. Huang, "Most people with post-COVID conditions will have had symptoms of the initial illness. According to the CDC, long COVID is found more often in people who had severe COVID-19 initially. People who were not vaccinated against COVID-19 and then contracted it may also have a higher risk of contracting long COVID. As always, I encourage people to wear masks and get vaccinated if they can!"
Dr. Mitchell explains, "It is possible to have had COVID-19 and not even realize it; this has been more common than most people realize. Recent studies suggest that when people don't exhibit any of the usual signs of the disease, such as coughing and fever, they can still carry and pass it on without knowing. Unfortunately, there are also cases where those who had mild or symptomless cases of COVID-19 can develop symptoms of long COVID later on. Although someone may have fully recovered from their initial diagnosis, new symptoms related to long COVID could appear months later. Taking preventative measures such as washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask in public, and avoiding large groups remains the best way to protect yourself and others from exposure to COVID-19 and its potentially long-lasting effects."
Signs of Long COVID
Dr. Huang says, "There is no specific test for long COVID, which makes it incredibly hard to diagnose. The symptoms can be incredibly vague, such as fatigue or difficulty with concentration. Other symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing can also mimic other diseases. If anyone is experiencing any concerning symptoms, they should be talking to their healthcare providers. Their providers may want to run some tests as symptoms may be caused by a wide range of other conditions."
Dr. Mitchell says, "With the pandemic of COVID-19 still ravaging communities worldwide, it is important to recognize the unusual and lingering symptoms indicative of long COVID. Long COVID is a cluster of persistent symptoms experienced after having been infected with SARS-CoV-2, also known as coronavirus. Common signs of long COVID include extreme exhaustion, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent headache or sensitivities to light, gastrointestinal issues including weight loss or gain, depression, and anxiety. It is key to know that signs may appear weeks or months after infection with viruses from the coronavirus family. While the exact cause for long COVID is not definitively known, it is well known that this issue is an ever-present reality for many individuals who have (or had) contracted the virus. For this reason, awareness and frequent check-ins on one's physical and mental health post-infection are essential to identify if there may be any concerning developments suggestive of long COVID."
Dying From Long COVID
Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, "To die from long COVID, you must have survived the initial COVID infection. Despite being home to less than half of the U.S. population, white people have accounted for a staggering 78% of long COVID deaths. This gap is widened because Black people are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus. Long COVID shows another instance of racial disparity in healthcare, with 10% of long COVID deaths encompassing this minority population. Understanding and recognizing these disparities is integral to improving healthcare outcomes for minorities and achieving health equity across America."
According to the NYT, "Nearly 57 percent of deaths related to long Covid were in people 75 and older. Nearly a third of the death certificates that mentioned long Covid listed the underlying or main cause of death as a non-Covid condition such as heart disease, cancer or Alzheimer's."