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Long COVID symptoms: What we know—and don’t know—about the mysterious illness that could affect up to 80% of COVID survivors

0 2 years ago

Exactly what it is, when it appears, how long it lingers, how many patients it affects (from 10% to 80% of COVID survivors, depending on the study), and what just causes it—beyond the seemingly obvious—are debated, with new hypotheses floated daily.

As research into the vexing new disease expands, it seems that almost anything and everything could be a symptom—from ear numbness, a sensation of “brain on fire,” and erectile dysfunction to irregular menstrual periods, constipation, and peeling skin.

For those investigating the mysterious malady, that’s a real problem.

Recently scientists have attempted to categorize Long COVID patients into subgroups, hypothesizing that the condition that could affect up to 23 million Americans, according to federal officials, isn’t one thing, but many.

A picture is beginning to emerge of “groups of symptoms that have yet to be characterized well enough to call one or several diseases,” Justin Reese, a computational biologist with Berkeley Lab—a multi-science lab supported by the U.S. Department of Energy—told Fortune this week via email.

A study released last month used artificial intelligence to classify tens of thousands of U.S. “long haul” patients using their electronic health records. The main symptom sets his study found include patients who primarily suffer from:

  • Blood and circulatory system issues like heart failure, arrhythmias, and chest pain.
  • Respiratory system issues like throat and chest pain, upper respiratory infections, asthma, and lower respiratory disease.
  • Musculoskeletal and nervous system issues like connective tissue disorders, osteoarthritis, and musculoskeletal pain.
  • Digestive system issues like abdominal and pelvic pain, nausea, vomiting, and disorders of the urinary system.

But theories abound. Dr. Alexandra Brugler Yonts, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., recently shared her list of possible buckets with Fortune. They include patients who:

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