CDC calls long-term COVID-19 ‘emerging public health concern’

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called long-haul COVID-19 "an emerging public health concern that is not well understood," in a report released by the agency on Friday. 

While there may be a dearth of data on long-term symptoms associated with COVID-19, the CDC said they are becoming more common among those who contract the novel coronavirus. 

The CDC drew its conclusion from a survey that consisted of data from 3,135 adults who had been tested for COVID-19 since January 2020. Of the total respondents, 698 tested positive for COVID-19. Out of the total number of respondents who tested positive for the disease, 65.9% reported experiencing symptoms that lasted four weeks or more. 

CDC researchers said fatigue was the most common long-term symptom followed by shortness of breath, change in smell or taste, and cough and headache.

Other long-term symptoms reported included hair loss and cognitive dysfunction.

CDC researchers said much more data is still needed to better understand the problem of long-term COVID-19, adding that "how vaccination affects post-COVID conditions remains unclear."

"Estimating population-level frequency of specific long-term symptoms among the general population and patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 could help health care professionals better understand the types and prevalences of symptoms their patients might experience and could help guide health systems in preparing care management strategies for patients with post-COVID conditions," researchers said. 

During the onset of the pandemic, many doctors were baffled by some of the deleterious effects caused by COVID-19 — originally thought to be just a respiratory illness.

But cases detailed in the most recent CDC report as well as anecdotally by thousands of others illustrate that the effects of the novel coronavirus can be much more complex.

Earlier this year, radiological images published at Northwestern University detailed the various types of long-term effects of COVID-19 including rheumatoid arthritis flares, autoimmune myositis or "COVID toes," among other conditions.

In a study published on Feb. 17 in the journal "Skeletal Radiology," the collections of images included ultrasounds, X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans which confirmed and illustrated the causes of various COVID-19 symptoms.

"We’ve realized that the COVID virus can trigger the body to attack itself in different ways, which may lead to rheumatological issues that require lifelong management," said corresponding author Dr. Swati Deshmukh.

Currently, several symptoms of COVID-19 identified in the study are not recognized by the CDC. Symptoms like "COVID toes" and "rheumatoid arthritis" aren’t listed on the CDC’s website detailing long-term effects of the coronavirus.

According to the CDC, the most commonly reported long-term symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain

Other reported long-term symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with thinking and concentration (sometimes referred to as "brain fog")
  • Depression
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Intermittent fever
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)

More serious long-term complications appear to be less common but have been reported. These have been noted to affect different organ systems in the body. These include:

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Respiratory: lung function abnormalities
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Dermatologic: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological: smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems
  • Psychiatric: depression, anxiety, changes in mood

The CDC said, "While most persons with COVID-19 recover and return to normal health, some patients can have symptoms that can last for weeks or even months after recovery from acute illness."

According to an NIH study published in December 2020, researchers found evidence to suggest that brain damage may be a byproduct of COVID-19. Researchers uncovered blood vessel damage and inflammation in the brains of 19 deceased COVID-19 patients.

"We found that the brains of patients who contract infection from SARS-CoV-2 may be susceptible to microvascular blood vessel damage. Our results suggest that this may be caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the virus" said Dr. Avindra Nath, clinical director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Nath, the senior author of the study, added that while COVID-19 is most commonly known to be a respiratory illness, he hopes this study will help the medical community recognize the scope of complications that can arise from contracting the novel coronavirus.