COVID-19: What Are the Long-Term Risks to Your Health?

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About 80% of people with COVID-19 are getting better without special treatment, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Many more are leaving the hospital on their way to recovery.

Because COVID-19 is a new disease, doctors aren’t yet sure about the long-term consequences for those who have had it. They’re closely watching patients to better understand the effects it has on the body.

Most cases of COVID-19 are mild, the WHO notes. For those who do get very sick, common complications seem to involve the lungs, heart and kidneys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The brain and nervous system may also be affected.

Some people with coronavirus develop sepsis — an overreaction of the body to infection that can be life-threatening and require significant time for recovery. There are also a few risks, such as blood clots, that face every person who spends a significant amount of time in the hospital.

While these conditions are dangerous and frightening, doctors are learning more every day about how to better treat the disease. If you’ve had COVID-19, working closely with your health care team offers the best odds of a full recovery.

What Does Coronavirus Do to Your Lungs?

Novel coronavirus is primarily a respiratory infection — meaning it strikes the tissues and organs involved in breathing.

If COVID-19 spreads from the upper respiratory tract to the lungs, it can cause a type of infection called pneumonia. The alveoli, tiny air sacs in your lungs, fill up with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. Unlike the types of pneumonia caused by bacteria, antibiotics won’t work to fight it, the WHO says.

Another potentially serious complication is acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. This occurs when the coronavirus causes more serious damage to the alveoli, including scarring and stiffness. Oxygen levels can drop dangerously low — this is when patients require ventilators.

Recovery from ARDS can take weeks or months. The longer someone is on a ventilator, the lengthier the journey back to full strength and function.

Does Coronavirus Harm the Heart?

Beyond the lungs, novel coronavirus may strike another critical organ: the heart. According to the American College of Cardiology, about 17% of patients in one study developed arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm. And, 7.2% experienced an acute injury to the heart.

Like other serious illnesses, COVID-19 places a higher strain on the cardiovascular system. Physicians on the front lines have reported seeing patients develop:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle

People who already had cardiovascular issues are known to face a higher risk of serious complications from coronavirus. Right now, it’s not clear how hard the disease is on healthy hearts. But because COVID-19 symptoms may mask signs of heart problems, the issues may be more common than doctors realize.

Can Coronavirus Cause Kidney Damage?

People with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 don’t seem to sustain any damage to their kidneys, responsible for filtering waste out of your blood.

However, the International Society of Nephrology notes that one-fourth to one-fifth of those who are hospitalized develop kidney abnormalities. Physicians can spot this issue by testing levels of protein and red blood cells in patients’ urine.

In addition, a smaller number — about 15% — experience acute kidney injury. This means their kidneys aren’t able to filter at full capacity. Experts need more evidence to determine whether this will cause long-term problems in people who recover.

Because of these complications, patients who already have kidney disease are at high risk if they develop COVID-19. That’s especially true for people on dialysis or who have had a kidney transplant.

Does Coronavirus Impact the Brain and Nervous System?

By some reports, about one-third of people in the hospital for COVID-19 will develop neurological issues — and in severe cases, that number may reach as high as 45%, according to the American Neurological Association.

These symptoms include dizziness, headaches, strokes and shifts in consciousness. Some patients also report a loss in their senses of taste and smell, according to the CDC.

As with most other complications of the condition, it isn’t yet known whether these problems will improve with time or linger as patients recover.

What Are the Complications from Hospital Treatment?

People who stay in the hospital for a long time with COVID-19 can face a wide range of risks, the CDC notes. Blood clots may form after extended periods of lying down. Muscles used to breathe or move weaken with inactivity. Additional issues that may develop include:

  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Other infections
  • Stress ulcers

Many people who are on ventilators require sedatives to ease breathing, relieve anxiety or reduce the amount of oxygen their body requires. They’re critical medications — but over time, they may contribute to problems with thinking, learning and memory. Plus, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mood disorders may set in.

But because many of these problems are not unique to coronavirus, doctors have an idea of how to treat them. Other medicines may prevent complications and make someone recovering after leaving the hospital feel better.

Rehabilitation or physical therapy, which can be done by telehealth, can restore strength and function. Meanwhile, counseling — also available through video visits with online physicians or other mental health providers — can improve mood.

Learn the Latest about Coronavirus

As scientists learn more about COVID-19 they’ll release information on the CDC website. Meanwhile, we’ll keep you updated here at the AdventHealth Coronavirus Resource Hub, so you know how to keep yourself and your family safe.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of coronavirus or other illness, schedule a video visit on our AdventHealth App to consult with a physician in real time.

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