For some people who contract COVID-19, the illness doesn’t end after they’ve recovered. Scientists and doctors are realizing that this virus can cause a range of lasting health problems.
“While we’re getting better at preventing our sickest COVID-19 patients from dying, they could come out of the hospital strapped with long-lasting disability,” says Bryan Kelly, D.O., a pulmonary and critical care physician with Henry Ford Health. “Among survivors, COVID-19 isn’t resolved right away.”
Dr. Kelly says that fatigue is present in about half of patients who were sick enough to be in the hospital, along with shortness of breath, joint pain and chest discomfort. “We’re also noticing chronic cough and persistent difficulty with loss of smell and taste,” he says. “What is surprising is that it’s not just ICU patients. Many patients who weren’t sick enough to be in the ICU are having symptoms months down the road.”
COVID-19 Can Lead To Organ Damage
Although COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, in many cases, it doesn’t just damage the lungs. Experts have found that other organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys can be affected, partly because COVID-19 can cause the immune system to go into overdrive.
“The immune system fights infection through a host of different mechanisms, but sometimes the immune response is so robust that it attacks healthy cells instead of just cells infected with the virus,” says Dr. Kelly. “In the most severe cases, the immune system prompts intense inflammation and destroys healthy tissue elsewhere in the body—including the heart, kidneys and liver. The challenge to treating COVID-19 lies not only in treating the viral infection itself, but also the inflammatory phase that follows.”
COVID-19 can also cause blood-vessel damage, potentially leading to organ damage. “We don’t fully understand why the blood vessels are also involved in this viral infection, but we do know that severe COVID-19 infection makes patients more likely to develop blood clots within specific organs including the lungs, heart, and kidneys,” says Dr. Kelly.
COVID-19 May Lead To Heart Inflammation
Patients with underlying health conditions—diabetes, heart disease, obesity—are more likely to have complications and lasting health effects from COVID-19, says Dr. Kelly. But a recent study shows that those with minor symptoms (even those who were able to recover at home) could have weakened hearts from COVID-19 infections.
In two German studies published by JAMA Cardiology, otherwise healthy patients had increased inflammation and heart damage, as compared with people who never had COVID-19. This may show that COVID-19 could be associated with cardiac arrythmias, or heartbeat irregularities, potentially leading to complications down the road.
“There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19: how long these effects last, why they occur,” says Dr. Kelly. “It’s all the more reason to use preventative measures to avoid contracting the virus. Until we find a vaccine for this disease, the best thing we have is prevention: frequent hand washing, mask wearing in public places, and social distancing.”
To use our online screening tool, learn more about safety precautions at our facilities, or to get all of the latest coronavirus updates, visit Henry Ford Health's COVID-19 Resource Center.
Find a doctor near you at henryford.com. Call 1-800-436-7936 if you are in southeast Michigan or 1-888-862-DOCS if you are in the Jackson area or south central Michigan.
Dr. Bryan Kelly is a pulmonary and critical care physician who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Henry Ford Macomb Hospital and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.