The coronavirus pandemic has been tragic in so many ways.

For example, there are many cases around the country of sick patients being sent back into nursing homes and assisted living facilities. These decisions could have ultimately led to deaths related to the virus, of which elderly people are particularly susceptible.

There have been more than 100,000 covid deaths in the United States, and it’s also led to ripple effects in the economy and for people’s mental health.

While we’re starting to look forward and many places are reopening, there are still lingering concerns and questions about the novel coronavirus. One question is whether or not it has long-term effects.

Here’s what we know so far. 

Early Hong Kong Research

The hospital authority in Hong Kong started monitoring Covid-19 patients for several months after they were released. Around half of the 20 people, they were monitoring had lung function below the normal level, according to the medical director of the infectious disease center at Princess Margaret Hospital.

There’s something called diffusing capacity of the lungs. This is a measure of how well oxygen and carbon dioxide are able to transfer between the lungs and blood. For the people being followed in Hong Kong, they had numbers that were below what was considered normal and healthy.

Another study looked at CT scans of 90 patients in Wuhan. Of the 70 discharged from the hospital, 66 had mild-to-substantial abnormalities on the lungs.

An April 3 paper authored by doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found chronic cardio complications, likely as a result of ongoing inflammation. 

Other Possible Health Effects

Doctors in the U.S. and around the world have reported a variety of health effects beyond respiratory complications from people infected with covid-19. They’ve seen effects in the digestive system, kidneys, liver, brain, heart, and blood vessels.

One of the biggest risks of covid-19, based on what we now know, is the potential for overreactive immune responses and blood clotting responses. These effects are thought to cause much of the damage that leads to long-term effects.

For example, kidney damage could require dialysis, while blood clots or strokes could lead to disability. Scarred lungs can contribute to decreased lung function.

The treatments themselves may also have risks that lead to ongoing health effects. For example, spending time on a ventilator can cause damage to the lungs and other systems in the body.

The biggest risk of long-term health complications seems to stem from cases of covid-19 that involved acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Also, if your lung function is impaired, it can then affect other organs, so it can be somewhat of a cascading effect. 

Who Is Most At Risk of Complications?

Even though it can sound scary to hear about possible long-term covid-19 effects, it’s important for people to realize these are only the most severe cases. Most people recover easily from the virus, and many don’t even know they have it.

With that being said, the people most at risk for complications in the short- and long-term from covid-19 are people who are 65 and older, and people who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

Also at risk of complications are people who have chronic heart, kidney, lung or liver disease, and people who are morbidly obese or have diabetes.

Whether someone develops ARDs or pneumonia plays a role in long-term effects, and the duration of the illness is relevant. For example, someone who’s sick and hospitalized for a long period of time may lose conditioning and muscle strength, be weak, and need rehabilitation.

There’s something called post-intensive care syndrome that can affect people anytime they receive care in an ICU in a hospital.

If you are in an intensive care unit, you may be more at risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety when you’re released. There is also the potential for impairment cognitively and physically stemming from treatment in an ICU.

It’s not uncommon for patients who survive a serious, critical illness to deal with impairment, and some of that can come from malnutrition and general weakness.

The best thing to do isn’t to worry about things are out of your control, but take smart, reasonable precautions to protect yourself from contracting covid-19. Luckily the more we find out, the more doctors can understand and tailor treatments and hopefully also prevent further complications.

Also, as was mentioned, most people won’t experience these severe long-term effects.