Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
We have all become so knowledgeable about COVID-19. We are aware of the illness that it brings. We are aware that perhaps as many as 30% of those who experience the acute illness continue to have long-term symptoms. And now…there is yet a new category of sufferers: Some of those who have had COVID-19 are now experiencing brand new medical problems.
A recent study tracked the health insurance records of nearly two million Americans who contracted COVID-19. It showed that from one to six months after infection, 23% sought medical treatment for a new condition. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of Americans who pursued care for a health problem that had not been diagnosed before they tested positive for COVID-19. All ages were affected, including children.
What types of health issues were found? The most common new problem was pain, including pain in nerves and muscles, appearing anywhere in the body. Other new issues were breathing difficulties, high cholesterol, malaise and fatigue, newly diagnosed hypertension, a variety of intestinal symptoms, migraine headaches, skin problems, heart conditions, sleep disorders, brain fog, anxiety and depression.
The first question I would ask is this: How does this rate of newly diagnosed diseases for post-COVID patients compare to the rate of newly diagnosed diseases in people who never had COVID-19? It appears that between one and six months after becoming infected, patients who had COVID had a 60% greater risk of death and a 20% greater chance of needing outpatient medical care than did those who had not been infected.
Of course, note that it’s possible that some of these newly diagnosed issues actually already existed prior to the COVID-19 infection, and only came to light because the person finally saw a doctor.
Did only those who had serious cases of COVID develop these new complaints? Consider this: Nearly half of hospitalized COVID patients experienced subsequent medical issues, 27% of those with mild to moderate disease experienced subsequent medical issues, and 19% of those who were completely asymptomatic experienced subsequent medical issues. While this data clearly implies that the sickest COVID patients are more likely to develop newly diagnosed conditions post-COVID, it also shows that anyone who was COVID-positive (whether or not they had symptoms) may find themselves with unexpected new health issues.
What does this new data tell us? We are dealing with a strange and new disease. It absolutely has lasting effects. This is yet one more reason to become vaccinated and continue to protect yourself and your community. The current significant surge in the Delta variant across the United States is a critical reminder that we are not yet through this pandemic. Please continue to remain vigilant in protecting your health, and the health of your loved ones.