SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Nearly one in five Americans who have had COVID-19 have long COVID. The CDC reports these long haulers experience fatigue, memory impairment, and coordination problems that can last months or even years. But what causes one person to feel symptom free within days of testing positive, while others suffer for months and months? Some researchers think the one thing that’s fighting the virus is also causing the problem.
Jeff Engman says, “The fatigue, I was really drained and, you know, could hardly get out of bed.”
Jeff Engman was one of the early ones to get COVID — but his symptoms stuck around.
“I’m talking pretty good now, but early on, I was trying to talk and I had trouble finding the words.” Engman says.
“One of the most common symptoms of long haul COVID is having some type of what people are calling brain fog.” Explains Jennifer Graves, MD, PhD, Neurologist at UC San Diego Health.
Doctor Graves is leading a team tracking neurological symptoms in COVID long haulers.
Doctor Graves says, “What we’ve realized is shortly after the infection and the first few weeks to months, folks complain of having headaches and fatigue. And then over time we see a shift of folks complaining more about memory problems and inattention and difficulty multitasking.”
They found 15 to 30 percent of long haulers’ cognitive skills were impacted. Of 56 long haulers, six months after getting COVID, two-thirds still reported persistent neurological symptoms. The most prevalent … memory loss.
“One leading theory that I think is very probable is that it’s all triggered by the immune response to this virus. But even if the virus isn’t directly invading the brain, it’s triggering the immune system to behave in a way that triggers inflammatory response in the brain.” Explains Doctor Graves.
And so far, this response can last up to a year or even longer.
“The good news is the newer variants of this virus seem to be less likely to trigger this phenomenon.” States Doctor Graves.
UC-San Diego researchers are now working to find biomarkers in the brain or blood that could identify which patients are suffering COVID brain. That way treatment, such as cognitive rehabilitation, can begin sooner. Doctor Graves says other diseases like multiple sclerosis and dementia are also impacted by the immune system. They plan to follow the COVID long haulers long-term to see if they are now more susceptible to these diseases.
Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.
COVID ON THE BRAIN
BACKGROUND: Long COVID is a phenomenon where individuals continue to experience symptoms after recovering from an initial bout of COVID-19, sometimes even months later. These symptoms can range from fatigue and headaches, muscle weakness, heart palpitations, and brain fog. It is unclear what causes long COVID, but it is believed to be the result of a combination of factors, including the severity of the initial infection, the presence of underlying health conditions, and individual differences in immune response. Around one in 13 adults who have experienced COVID 19 experienced long COVID and are referred to sometimes as long haulers. Older adults were reported less likely to have long COVID than younger adults and women were more likely than men to experience it.
THE STUDY: Dr. Jennifer Graves is part of a team at UC San Diego Health studying the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the brain and nervous system. She has been conducting research to better understand the mechanisms behind these symptoms and how they can be effectively treated. Dr. Graves and her team are working to develop treatments for COVID long haulers, including therapies to reduce inflammation and improve neurological function. Their work is helping to shed light on the long-term effects of COVID-19 and is providing hope for those who continue to experience symptoms months after the initial infection.
NEW REGULATIONS: In response to the growing number of long-haulers, new regulations have been put in place to help provide them with better care. Some countries have created dedicated clinics to provide comprehensive care for long-haulers. In the workplace, some employers are also taking steps to accommodate long-haulers. Breathing exercises, physical therapy, and other medications have also appeared to be helpful to patients suffering with COVID-19 long hauler symptoms. There are also many clinical trials in place to test different treatment methods and medications for long haulers because the symptoms of long term COVID-19 can be similar to those of other diseases, it is important to consult a doctor if you experience any abnormalities.
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