Millions of people around the world are recovering from confirmed COVID-19 infections. And, while many of those people are seemingly returning to full health, others are telling a different story of long-term symptoms and sickness.
Does that mean that coronavirus lingers in the body after recovery? And if so, could that cause others to become infected by people that have seemingly recovered? Let’s find out.
What Does COVID-19 do to the Body?
First, let’s look at how COVID-19 behaves in our bodies. Viruses generally work by making their way inside the cells of the body and taking over them. The Sars-CoV-2 virus first infects the throat lining, airways, and lungs of infected people. From here, the virus multiplies and more of the body’s cells are infected. The incubation period between initial infection and first symptoms varies widely, but the average is thought to be five days.
How Ill do People Become When They Have Coronavirus?
Most infected people will only experience mild symptoms, and eight out of ten people only report fever and a cough. A fever is common because it’s a result of the immune system responding to the infection. Body aches are also a common symptom caused by the immune system’s efforts to battle the virus.
Sometimes, the immune system overreacts, and this can cause the virus to progress into a more severe condition. If the body releases too many of the chemical signals used to fight infection, this can lead to excessive inflammation and more damage throughout the body, including pneumonia.
A small percentage of those infected with coronavirus become critically ill to the point that their bodies begin to fail and death becomes a possibility. The reason for this progression is that the immune system is spiraling out of control and causing major damage to the body. This can cause septic shock when the blood pressure drops so dangerously low that organs stop working properly. Critically ill people might also experience acute respiratory distress when inflammation stops the lungs providing the body with the oxygen it needs to live.
Chronic Viral Infection vs Latent Infection
Chronic or persistent viral infections can continue for months after their first detection. This occurs when the virus continues to be produced at low levels and infection can persist for months or even years. Often, these chronic infections occur at immune-privileged sites which are parts of the body that are less accessible to the immune system. These sites include the eyes and central nervous system and the immune system finds it much more difficult to eradicate viral infections in these places.
A latent viral infection is when the virus is present in a person but it’s dormant and not multiplying. If latency ends, the virus can reactivate and the carrier can become infectious. Whether or not the virus does reactivate, people with latent viruses are infected for their entire lives. This is because viruses that establish latency in humans are difficult or even impossible for the immune system to eradicate. The reason for this is that during a latent period the virus is producing little or no viral protein, and that means that the immune system simply doesn’t know the infection is there.
Research has shown that coronavirus isn’t a latent infection, which is extremely positive news. But, could it be chronic?
Can You Catch COVID-19 From Someone Who Has Recovered?
Some studies do suggest that active infection persists in people who have seemingly recovered. Coronavirus has been detected in people in various sites after recovery, including the intestines, blood, and respiratory tract, as well as the placenta of pregnant people.
In one small study, coronavirus was detected in semen in just under 10% of patients who were thought to have recovered. However, it’s not yet known whether the virus was still infectious or whether it was dead viral material.
Does Coronavirus Linger in the Body?
Recently, there have been reports that people that have recovered from coronavirus are still suffering the virus’s effects much later down the line. Many people have reported delayed or incomplete recovery from symptoms including cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Does that mean the illness can have a long-term effect? Perhaps, yes. Growing evidence suggests that COVID-19 can infect immune-privileged sites and that chronic infection can result from this.
However, it’s too early to know how these persistent infections and symptoms might affect patients. While scientists and researchers are working hard to learn more about the virus, we can do our bit by continuing to social distance, practice good hygiene, and wear masks.