The Disease That Does Not Seem to End: Health Effects of COVID-19
by Duygu BAYRAM & Alp Ünal AYHAN
It is safe to say that most of us had different plans for 2020 when the clock turned midnight on January 1st, even those of us who did not have any plans. Perhaps some of us heard a thing or two about the new virus in China but certainly, none of us expected our whole year to be spent holed up in our apartments or going to work full of anxiety. Coronavirus halted our lives, and it halted entire countries. It had a global effect on the economy, education, transportation, politics, and health. In this article, we will focus on the impact it has on our health under two titles, psychological and physiological.
Coronavirus can be deadly. While the elderly are reported to be the risk group, lately many people have warned that young people may be unexpectedly affected as well. The uncertainty of our position with the virus, the sudden and major shift in our lifestyles, and the future is unclear, creates an immense amount of stress. A participant in our survey (1) specifically said they experience symptoms of anxiety due to the uncertainty of the situation we are in.
A study (2) wrote about the potential mental health effects of COVID-19 by discussing the findings from previous lockdowns. For example, in a study comparing MERS-CoV cases, the findings indicated a high level of stress in isolated patients of the disease based on various altered biological features. Another example they provide is the 3.4-fold increase in functional neurological symptom disorder found after the Boston Marathon bombings lockdown. In our survey, 4 out of 7 respondents reported that they experience symptoms of PTSD, one of them expressed fear of leaving their house. Out of these 7 people, 2 also reported experiencing symptoms of depression, and 5 reported anxiety symptoms with 2 of them explaining that the symptoms were temporary.
Furthermore, healthcare workers experience some mental health problems as well, various studies have found support for this. For instance, a study (3) done in China for the COVID-19 outbreak found that healthcare workers experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. This is not so different from previous outbreaks, researchers also found that healthcare workers developed symptoms of PTSD, especially after isolation, during the SARS-CoV outbreak (4). In the midst of an outbreak, medical professionals deal with high emotional stress, caused by their consistent exposure to the disease, emotionally charged patients, isolation from their friends and family, overworking, and loss of colleagues.
As for the rest of us, those who are not patients nor healthcare workers, we are not doing so well either. The prevalence of major depression seems to have increased by 7% during our time with the pandemic (5). Another study (6) found that anxiety levels of the public continue to rise as they follow the news and the numbers of those affected, made worse by mass quarantine. Disruptive measures like isolation and quarantine can also result in an increased incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and behavioral disorders among the public (7).
In short, it seems that our world is at risk of illness right now, even if we do not get infected by coronavirus directly. With education disrupted, economy unclear increased unemployment and decreased hiring, a potentially deadly invisible disease running amok, isolation, decreased access to medical care, being overworked; we are going through a lot right now so do not be too hard on yourself, take it one day at a time and do something nice for yourself today.
Even though they aren’t as common as the psychological effects, the most immediate, life-threatening, and devastating effects of COVID-19 are physiological. Perhaps it is best to group the bodily health effects of COVID into two: symptoms and long-term effects.
There’s been a lot of talk about COVID-19’s symptoms but it will be beneficial for our readers to have a refresher and check themselves against these symptoms regularly and consult professionals if they have them.
A study of more than 24,000 patients confirmed the most common symptoms are a fever and a cough. Slightly less common symptoms include fatigue, loss of smell and taste, and difficulty breathing (8). Some other symptoms are sore throat, a headache, chills, congestion or runny nose, nausea, and diarrhea (9). These appear after an “incubation period” lasting 2-14 days. On average symptoms appear 5-6 days after infection. Please note more symptoms are being discovered as we speak and studies from different groups of patients may show different frequencies.
While patients generally fight off the virus in a few weeks it may take time for some to get rid of all the symptoms. An often-seen symptom of COVID is a loss of taste. It’s reported it may take patients weeks or months to recover their taste. A Reddit user told they gained their taste back 5 months after infection (10). Some patients reported taking months to heal complications caused by COVID such as brain fog, chest pain, muscle, and joint pain, and heart arrhythmia (11).
We don’t have much information about the long-lasting health effects of COVID-19 as it’s been around for so little time, therefore it’s impossible to know whether the disease makes permanent changes to the human body or not. A particularly worrying sign of long term damage is elevated levels of the enzyme troponin, which is associated with heart damage, in 20-30% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. We don’t yet know if this damage is severe or permanent but it may be easily treated with simple medication (12).