How COVID-19 Affects the Body

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
October 10, 2020
5 min read

The Central Nervous System

Early research shows that 37% of COVID patients experience symptoms in the Central Nervous System. We’ve known loss of taste and smell is a mild symptom of the coronavirus, but emerging data tells us severe symptoms may also include ischemic stroke (caused by a blockage in an artery that supplies blood to the brain) and cerebral hemorrhage (the result of weakened blood vessels that leak or burst).

Central Nervous System symptoms can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Impaired consciousness
  • Unsteady gait
  • Ataxia
  • Epilepsy (seizures)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • Cranial neuropathies (impairment of certain nerves in the head)
  • Cognitive blunting (“brain fog”)

The Cardiovascular System

Data from a recent German study shows that of the 100 participants who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 two months prior and experienced a full recovery, nearly 80% had consistent abnormalities of the heart. 60% of participants had evidence of myocarditis. And most shockingly — the average age of the participants was just 49 years old.

COVID-19 associated heart complications:

  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the sack around the heart)
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
  • Stress Cardiomyopathy
  • Heart failure
  • Arrhythmias (abnormal and sometimes fatal electrical activity leading to ineffective rhythms of the heart)
  • Myocardial infarctions (heart attacks)

The Respiratory System

At the onset of the pandemic, the medical community documented that COVID-19 was a virus that affected the respiratory system. While we now know the coronavirus affects all organs, the lungs are especially vulnerable. Some of the acute lung effects include COVID-19 pneumonia caused by direct infection of the virus itself, superimposed bacterial pneumonias which occur due to the virus lowering a person’s defenses leading to bacterial infections, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) caused by severe inflammation and damage in the lungs.

Emerging literature shows chronic pulmonary complications as well such as post-COVID fibrosis. Essentially, post-COVID fibrosis means the lungs have scarring. And we do not yet know who is at the greatest risk for developing this complication.

Post-COVID fibrosis findings may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Chronic dry cough
  • Need for lung transplant (in severe cases)

COVID-19 Long Haulers — those diagnosed with the coronavirus months ago who are still recovering and have yet to return to their usual lives — are now dealing with symptoms in line with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome although it is unclear whether long COVID-19 is part of this syndrome or a completely different syndrome altogether.

The Digestive System

Recently, the American Journal of Gastroenterology examined 206 patients with a mild case of COVID-19. Of those patients, 117 reported digestive symptoms. Another body of research in Beijing found that up to 79% of people with COVID-19 develop gastrointestinal issues.

Digestive symptoms related to COVID-19:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding (in severe cases)

The Hematologic (Blood) System

COVID-19 is an inflammatory and hypercoagulable state. We’re seeing a significant number of ICU patients admitted for severe cases of COVID-19 who are developing abnormal blood clotting. Clinicians are working to solve the mystery behind this complication since ICU protocol calls for patients to be put on blood-thinners, and many coronavirus-related clotting cases are occurring despite prophylactic doses of blood thinners. Although it is more rare, these blood clots can also occur in the outpatient ambulatory patient.

We do not know why the virus itself causes some people to develop blood clots while others do not but common risk factors for blood clotting can also contribute to a person’s overall risk and include — obesity, smoking, prior history of blood clots, being older, pregnancy, immobility, cancer, and oral contraceptive or hormone replacement therapy use.

Types of blood-clotting seen in severe COVID-19 cases:

  • Deep vein thrombosis (clots in the veins of the legs which can break off and cause pulmonary embolism)
  • Pulmonary Embolism (clots in the lungs which can be fatal)
  • Cerebral artery clots (stroke-causing)
  • Peripheral arterial clots (clots in the arteries of the extremities)

Mobility Challenges

For individuals recovering from severe cases of the coronavirus, especially those released from intensive care, regaining mobility is proving to be a significant challenge.

Causes of COVID-related mobility issues:

  • Muscle atrophy due to prolonged period of being confined to bed
  • Muscle aches
  • Stroke experienced due to virus-related blood clots and complications
  • Challenges in securing consistent physical therapy services due to overburdened medical system during the pandemic

Chronic Fatigue

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is chronic, debilitating fatigue that leaves sufferers unable to work or to participate in normal daily activities. Today, it’s estimated that between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans suffer from the disease, though the vast majority of them remain undiagnosed. Worse, researchers have yet to discover its underlying causes and pathology.

COVID-19 Long Haulers — those diagnosed with the coronavirus months ago who are still recovering and have yet to return to their usual lives — are now dealing with symptoms in line with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome although it is unclear whether long COVID-19 is part of this syndrome or a completely different syndrome altogether. And the list of symptoms is extensive.

Symptoms of “Long Hauler” COVID-19:

  • Debilitating fatigue
  • Cognitive issues and difficulty concentrating
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • worsened quality of life.
  • Orthostatic intolerance (symptoms worsen when standing or sitting upright)
  • Racing heart
  • Headaches
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • GI issues

Mental Health

The effects of COVID-19 are not just physical. Stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic have impacted mental health across the country. Mental Health America reports that, in general, 1 in 5 Americans have mental health conditions. More and more people are reporting stress and anxiety as a result of stay-at-home orders, stress, and anxiety.

Mental health challenges due to the pandemic:

  • Job and unemployment related stress. Working from home, assisting children through distanced learning, and a significant unemployment rate are all contributing factors.
  • Stress of caregiving for elderly and young children. Surveys show caregiving stress has particularly affected women’s mental health during this crisis.
  • BIPOC community care. The CDC reports that fewer people of color report daily anxiety and depression and fewer utilize mental healthcare resources due to lack of health insurance coverage.
  • Anxiety over new and continued symptoms for coronavirus as well as fear of the unknown when it comes to their illness course.

As we continue to endure this ongoing pandemic, Carbon Health is committed to addressing mental health with easy-to-access virtual care appointments and referrals.

Our Team is committed to meeting these challenges with you.

The Carbon Health COVID Positive Care program was developed to provide comprehensive care, monitoring, and education for anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. From your initial diagnosis through your journey to recovery, we’re connecting you with care providers to help you manage your symptoms — from head to toe — and provide support for everything that comes with this uncharted terrain.

Liked what you read? Learn more by downloading the Carbon Health app or visiting carbonhealth.com.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.


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