The number of recovered COVID-19 patients in Alberta continues to rise, and doctors say it is important for people to be aware of their bodies as there is more and more evidence some people may experience long-term health impacts from the disease.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said there has been some emerging discussion of people who have prolonged symptoms for months, such as fatigue and other debilitating symptoms.
“So far, it doesn’t look like the infection persists but in some people, the symptoms might be hanging on for longer than we originally thought,” she said, adding post-infectious syndrome is sometimes seem in other acute and severe infections.
Saxinger said other long-term health impacts include inflammation in the lungs and abnormal lung function as a result of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which happens in COVID-19.
She also notes what happens to those who required intensive care.
“It’s well known those people have really long-term effects. They might actually even have lung scarring. It’s unclear if they would go back completely to their prior state of health after [a] critical care-type illness,” she said.
Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, said additional health impacts of COVID-19 include inflammation of blood vessels, which can lead to cardiac or kidney problems.
“We do know these measurable impacts are real and patients are actually experiencing symptoms and long-term effects well after they should have cleared the virus,” he said.
“We don’t think it’s the actual virus infecting these other tissues. We do think that it is the activation of our immune system and other proteins produced by our body to fight the virus cause elevated levels of inflammation that can then unfortunately start targeting other tissues.”
Saxinger said, at this point, it isn’t clear what type of patients — those hospitalized or those with minor illness — and what proportion of those patients may see long-term impacts.
She said these possible outcomes reveal that the coronavirus is talented at causing multi-system inflammatory effects.
“It’s not just a straight forward viral infection. It does seem to interact with the immune system in a way that’s not necessarily common across other types of infections that are otherwise similar.”
Jenne said severe infectious disease has the ability to cause dysfunction in different tissues and organ systems in the body.
“I would say this isn’t entirely new. I think what we are seeing is we are seeing a greater percentage of it associated with this particular virus and we are seeing, in many cases, perhaps more severe carry-on effects than other infectious diseases.”
Saxinger suggests that those who are dealing with health consequences as a result of COVID-19 track their symptoms and touch base with their doctor.
“Most of the time, this type of situation, a post-infectious syndrome like this, doesn’t usually have specific interventions. They’re usually general interventions — taking care of yourself, resting, exercising — but if there is anything else that needs to be done, I think we’re going to have to be tracking it,” she said.
Jenne agrees that tracking and talking with your healthcare provider is important; he also said it is important for people to realize how they are feeling is real.
“This is not in their head. This is not a panic or an anxiety response. There are medical reasons for this and we’re learning as we go, but if they’re not feeling well, they are not alone,” he said.
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