As the U.S. starts to bounce back from the Omicron surge, questions swirl over whether the millions of Americans who caught the variant are also at risk of developing long COVID, which means experiencing symptoms months after infection. New research has identified a few key risk factors.
An estimated 10-30% of people who contract COVID have it for the long haul, according to Wall Street Journal writer Sumathi Reddy. They experience brain fog, fatigue, memory and attention difficulties, muscle aches, and headaches. “[There are] some stranger things too, but it's wide-ranging and depends on the person.”
Autoantibodies were discovered among some people with COVID. They are commonly associated with people having autoimmune diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Reddy says COVID may have triggered dormant autoantibodies that could have gone undetected in a patient.
“Those are antibodies that the body makes, and it attacks itself. … That was an interesting finding. Because a lot of these people didn't have a diagnosed autoimmune condition,” Reddy says.
COVID can also reactivate the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis and lies dormant in a majority of people after an infection.
Researchers also found a connection between long COVID and type-2 diabetes. But Reddy says more studies are still needed to learn about its relationship with the virus.
She adds that asthma might also be a long COVID risk factor.
Can vaccines prevent long COVID?
Reddy says there’s evidence that vaccines might reduce the risk of developing long COVID. She references research from The Lancet that shows a 50% lower risk among double-vaccinated people.
Meanwhile, much remains unknown about long COVID’s development and treatment, she notes.
“There's a growing consensus in the people who study [long COVID] that this is a heterogeneous disease,” Reddy points out. “It's not going to be the same for everyone. And so as a result, the treatments are also going to have to be different for people. So that makes it even more complicated to diagnose and treat.”