A dark COVID-19 particle.
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • Even people who had a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID-19 can experience long COVID symptoms. 
  • Studies so far suggest that vaccination might only reduce the risk of long COVID in half or have no effect at all. 
  • People experiencing symptoms can find treatment at post-COVID and long COVID care clinics or with a doctor experienced in treating autonomic disorders. 

Long COVID—persistent symptoms following a COVID-19 infection, including chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss or distortion of smell and taste—has so far affected up to 23 million Americans. The illness is so debilitating that it has turned people’s lives upside down, with many losing their jobs and livelihoods while they wait for answers and treatments. Scientists are still looking into what causes the illness and what can be done to treat it. Here’s everything you need to know about it so far. 

What causes long COVID and what makes people more susceptible? 

Scientists are still trying to figure out the causes of long COVID. A recent study found four factors that may be associated with the illness: high levels of viral RNA early in an infection; the presence of certain autoantibodies (antibodies that mistakenly attack the body’s own tissues); the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus; and having Type 2 diabetes. These findings tell us that in some cases, the body may still be fighting remnants of the virus, disrupting the immune system. In other cases, the virus may trigger an autoimmune response that causes the body to mistakenly attack its own tissues or organs.

There’s also much uncertainty around what makes people susceptible to long COVID. Long-term symptoms are not limited to people who became severely ill as a result of COVID-19 infection. People who were only mildly ill or asymptomatic have also reported experiencing lingering health effects. Some data shows that women are affected more than men, especially middle-aged females. Children are not exempt from it, although they are at much lower risk compared to adults.

Are vaccines effective at preventing it?

Studies suggest that, in the case of breakthrough cases, vaccination might only halve the risk of long COVID or have no effect on it at all. That said, vaccines lower the chance of someone getting infected in the first place, which is the best way to avoid long COVID. Being vaccinated and boosted, as well as utilizing other public health measures such as masking and sanitation, remains the most reliable protection. 

Where can I go to seek treatment for long-term symptoms?

Because the causes of long COVID are still a mystery, it can be a challenge to find treatment that is specific to your condition. The first step would be to see a doctor to work on addressing your symptoms. You may also consider visiting a post-COVID or long COVID care clinic or a doctor with experience treating autonomic disorders, which are commonly seen in cases. (Long COVID is also now considered a disability in the U.S., which means people can apply for disability insurance.) Online support groups and resource hubs, such as Body Politic, Long COVID Support Group, and Long COVID Alliance, can be good places to go for comfort and advice.