A new study sheds light on what may be causing long COVID-19 in patients, and potential ways to mitigate risk.
The study was conducted on 209 COVID patients from diagnosis to convalescence between two to three months after initial infection. Long COVID patients are ones for whom symptoms continue to linger four or more weeks after acute infection. These symptoms can include memory loss, stomach problems, fatigue, anosmia, shortness of breath, and others.
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The study sought to identify risk factors for developing long COVID, and found four risk factors: type 2 diabetes, high levels of COVID RNA in the blood stream early in an infection, previous infection and reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, and specific autoantibodies that attack the body instead of viruses. Long COVID has been associated with acute disease severity, and it’s thought to be related to autoimmune factors, and unresolved viral fragments still circulating in the body.
According to the study, between 31% to 69% of COVID patients suffer lingering symptoms. Becker’s Hospital Review stated last August that there were some 11.1 million Americans living with long COVID, and more than 158,000 in Washington State alone.
The study found that since symptoms can arise from from multiple sources, identifying factors should be an important part of understanding treatments. There are suggestions that antiviral medications administered early in the disease could be beneficial, not only for treating acute COVID, but for reducing long-lasting symptoms as well. There’s also an association with cortisol deficiency in patients with respiratory viral long COVID, suggesting cortisol replacement therapy may be a potential treatment.
There were limitations with the study, however. Since it studied people at two to three months after acute infection, it can’t discern which patients will develop long-term chronic COVID. Another limitation was the relatively small study size.
Still, the study is a landmark in identifying risk factors for long COVID, and provides a foundation for other studies to build upon as researchers try to understand how to ward off and treat the disease.
Last September, 50 organizations and patient groups announced the establishment of the Long COVID Alliance. The group of scientists, patient-advocates, public health experts, and drug developers came together to address challenges posed by long-term symptoms of COVID.