GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Long COVID continues to be a lingering problem for more and more coronavirus patients in the months following their infection. Now, a new study contends that the life-threatening inflammation many patients experience — causing long-term damage to their health — is turning COVID-19 into a chronic condition.
“When someone has a cold or even pneumonia, we usually think of the illness being over once the patient recovers. This is different from a chronic disease, like congestive heart failure or diabetes, which continue to affect patients after an acute episode. We may similarly need to start thinking of COVID-19 as having ongoing effects in many parts of the body after patients have recovered from the initial episode,” says first author Professor Arch G. Mainous III, vice chair for research in the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine at the University of Florida Gainesville, in a media release.
“Once we recognize the importance of ‘long COVID’ after seeming ‘recovery’, we need to focus on treatments to prevent later problems, such as strokes, brain dysfunction, and especially premature death.”
COVID inflammation increases risk of death one year later
The study finds COVID patients experiencing severe inflammation while in the hospital saw their risk of death skyrocket by 61 percent over the next year post-recovery.
Inflammation raising the risk of death after an illness is a seemingly confusing concept. Typically, inflammation is a natural part of the body’s immune response and healing process. However, some illnesses including COVID-19 cause this infection-fighting response to overshoot. Previous studies call this the “cytokine storm,” an event where the immune system starts attacking healthy tissue.
“COVID-19 is known to create inflammation, particularly during the first, acute episode. Our study is the first to examine the relationship between inflammation during hospitalization for COVID-19 and mortality after the patient has ‘recovered’,” Prof. Mainous says.
“Here we show that the stronger the inflammation during the initial hospitalization, the greater the probability that the patient will die within 12 months after seemingly ‘recovering’ from COVID-19.”
There is a way to stop harmful inflammation
The study examined the health records of 1,207 adults hospitalized for COVID-19 in the University of Florida health system between 2020 and 2021. Researchers followed them for at least one year after discharge — keeping track of their C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. This protein is secreted by the liver and is a common measure of systemic inflammation.
Results show patients with a more severe case of the virus and those needing oxygen or ventilation had higher CRP levels during their hospitalization. The patients with the highest CRP concentrations had a 61-percent increased risk of death over the next year after their release from the hospital.
However, the team did find that prescribing anti-inflammatory steroids after hospitalization lowered the risk of death by 51 percent. Study authors say their findings show that the current recommendations for care after a coronavirus infection need to change. Researchers recommend more widespread use of orally taken steroids following a severe case of COVID.
These results appear in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.