Long COVID is an overlooked but serious risk of COVID-19

The US has recently taken a sharp turn toward “living with,” rather than trying to avoid, COVID-19. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indoor masks are no longer recommended for Americans in most parts of the country, and many mask and vaccine requirements have been repealed, even in the most COVID-cautious parts of the country. In a poll conducted by Axios-Ipsos in March, 66% of Americans said they believe COVID-19 poses little or no risk.

It’s hard to blame people for relaxing a little. For most vaccinated and boosted people, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that a case of COVID-19 will lead to serious illness. But some experts say the risk of lung COVID — the name for symptoms that persist for months or even more than a year after a COVID-19 case — is so real that it should be a concern for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Long COVID is both potentially debilitating and relatively rare, making the risk difficult to quantify. It’s also too early to say whether Omicron infections will lead to more or fewer lung COVID cases than previous variants, said Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

“The short answer is we don’t know enough at this point” to provide concrete advice on how lung COVID should fit into risk calculations, Lin says.

Who is most likely to get Lung COVID?

There is not one profile of a Lung COVID patient. An estimated 10 to 30% of people who get COVID-19 will develop some degree of lasting symptoms, although vaccination significantly reduces a person’s chances. The condition affects people old and young after mild and severe cases of COVID-19. Women seem to make up a disproportionate percentage of patients, but all genders are vulnerable. Many lung haulers, as people with lung COVID are sometimes called, were active and healthy before getting sick, while others had pre-existing conditions.

No one knows exactly what causes some people to get it. Recent studies have examined possible risk factors — from asthma and type 2 diabetes diagnoses to immune system quirks — but that research is still advancing.

How to reduce the risk of Lung COVID?

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people have developed Lung COVID. But getting vaccinated is one of the best-known ways to reduce your risk, apart from never getting infected, of course.

A recent study by researchers at the UK Office for National Statistics found that adults who became infected after two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were about 40% less likely to report symptoms of Lung COVID later than unvaccinated people who were infected. touched. In the study, approximately 9.5% of vaccinated people and 15% of unvaccinated people reported symptoms 12 weeks after infection. Other studies, most of which were small, came to similar estimates.

“You’re much less likely to get Lung COVID if you’re fully vaccinated,” says Dr. Wes Ely, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine who studies Lung COVID, “but the risk is by no means zero means.”

Linda Loxley, a 55-year-old long-haul hauler living in Rhode Island, contracted COVID-19 in March 2021, the same week she received her second vaccine dose. After avoiding the virus for all of 2020 — despite working at a senior citizen center where she was likely to be exposed — and getting her first vaccine dose, “I thought I was safe,” Loxley says.

Instead, COVID-19 left her with excruciating headaches, debilitating fatigue, nerve pain and cognitive impairment. Her symptoms became severe enough that she had to leave her job, and after being sick for a year, she has yet to find treatment that makes a significant difference.

Loxley says the experience of long-haul carriers should be a reminder that COVID-19 poses a serious threat. “This is real,” she says. “We got this virus and we can’t get rid of it.”

How Much Should I Worry About Lung COVID?

When anyone can get lung COVID and vaccination is a good — but not flawless — way to reduce risk, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to accurately calculate how likely they are to develop the condition.

People like certainty, says Robyn Wilson, a professor of risk analysis and decision science at Ohio State University. “We want [the chances of something to be] zero or 100. Anything in between, often our perceptions or calculations are biased,” depending on personal risk tolerance, circumstances or experience with the threat in question, she says. For example, someone whose spouse suffers from Lung COVID may overestimate the chance of getting it, while someone who doesn’t know anyone with the condition could underestimate it too much.

Even experts are divided on how heavily lung COVID should play a role in a person’s risk assessment.

“It’s reasonable to still focus primarily on the acute symptoms and hospitalization and death as the main drivers for avoiding COVID,” says Lin, because so little is known about Lung COVID.

But Ely says people shouldn’t forget about Long COVID either. “Anyone who is healthy and wants to stay healthy and lead a normal lifestyle should be aware” that Lung COVID is a possibility and act accordingly, for example by wearing an N95, KN95 or other protective mask in public indoor settings, he says .

With so much to learn, Wilson says each person must decide how risks like Lung COVID will affect their behavior. One person may decide that the mental health benefits of going back to “normal” make all the related risks worth it, while another may decide that peace of mind makes continued caution worth it. Neither is inherently wrong or right, as long as people don’t intentionally endanger others or make those around them uncomfortable, Wilson says.

When accurate risk calculations aren’t possible, “you have to fall back on mental shortcuts” that help you make tough choices, she says. During the pandemic, Wilson has postponed CDC guidance when she has to make a decision — which means these days she’s pretty comfortable with easing precautions.

“I still encourage people to look to the experts for what’s appropriate,” she says. “But if you don’t feel comfortable with that uncertainty on a personal level…then do what you need to do.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.

This post Long COVID is an overlooked but serious risk of COVID-19

was original published at “https://time.com/6158273/long-covid-19-risk/”