- New findings suggest that severe COVID-19 may significantly damage long-term health.
- People with severe COVID-19 had a twofold higher risk of dying in the year after their illness started compared with people without severe COVID-19.
- This risk is much higher in people under age 65, and death is often from causes not typically associated with COVID-19.
People with long COVID, a condition that happens to some survivors of COVID-19, could have twice the risk of death within the next year than those who experienced mild or moderate infection or were never ill, according to a study published Dec. 1 in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.
The findings suggest that severe COVID-19 could significantly damage long-term health and shows the importance of vaccination to prevent severe disease.
“Long COVID commonly presents as fatigue and neurocognitive change. Some symptoms like persistent shortness of breath or chest pain are signals of potential complications,” Dr. Thomas Gut, associate chair of medicine and director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Healthline.
According to Dr. John Raimo, chair of medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, severe cases are marked by significant respiratory distress.
“This can manifest as difficulty breathing, decreased levels of oxygen in the blood, or significant involvement of the lungs,” he said.
Raimo explained that people with a mild infection might only experience symptoms that include fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and headache, but they generally won’t have respiratory symptoms.
Researchers at the University of Florida analyzed the electronic health records of 13,638 people who underwent a PCR test for COVID-19 within the University of Florida health system and subsequently recovered from the illness.
Surprisingly, researchers found that risk of death following severe infection was significantly higher in people under 65. This group showed a 233 percent increased risk of dying than people without COVID-19.
“In a time when nearly all COVID-19 hospitalizations are preventable this study points to an important and under-investigated sequela of COVID-19 and the corresponding need for prevention,” the study authors wrote.
Patient records revealed that only 20 percent of those who required hospitalization and died from severe COVID-19 did so from complications related to infection, like abnormal blood clotting or respiratory failure.
That means 80 percent of deaths were from causes that are typically unrelated to the disease.
“Since these deaths were not for a direct COVID-19 cause of death among these patients who have recovered from the initial episode of COVID-19, this data suggests that the biological insult from COVID-19 and physiological stress from COVID-19 is significant,” the researchers wrote.
They noted that the deaths frequently happened long after people had recovered from the disease, so doctors may never have seen an association.
Gut said the greater death rates within a year of severe COVID-19 is “somewhat expected.”
“Since the damage that the acute viral phase causes can lead to deadly complications for weeks or months after infections resolve,” he explained.
However, he found the age of those affected concerning.
“More alarming to me is how much higher the death risk becomes for patients under the age of 65 that had severe COVID infections,” Gut said.
Raimo noted that these findings support the idea that people recovering from severe COVID-19 experience a decline in their overall health.
“This puts them at an increased risk of future infections and decreases their ability to recover from subsequent medical conditions,” he said.
Raimo noted that our healthcare system has risen to the challenge with each COVID-19 surge.
He also cautioned that increasing awareness of long COVID and its lasting effects will continue to pose challenges to healthcare.
“However, with the increasing vaccination rates and continued vigilance, I’m confident our system will continue to function at the highest level,” he said.
Raimo also pointed out that the best way to prevent long COVID is vaccination.
“With widespread availability of several effective vaccinations, the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths and severe infections are now preventable,” he said.
“It’s clear that having milder infections prevents worse outcomes long-term,” said Gut. “Since the vaccine has shown to both drastically reduce death from infection as well as reduce severity of disease, it’s highly encouraged to complete a vaccine course and booster.”
He added that it’s still unclear how many people will have symptoms from long COVID.
“As the pandemic continues and patients get repeat infections, there is still no clear end in sight to new cases, and much still needs to be done to get everyone vaccinated,” said Gut.
New research finds that people with long COVID have twice the chance of dying in the next year than those who never developed COVID-19.
According to the study findings, this risk is much higher in those under age 65, and death is often from causes not typically associated with COVID-19.
Experts say that long COVID will continue to present challenges to our healthcare system. They recommend being vaccinated and getting booster shots as the best way to avoid severe illness.