The medical community is learning new things all the time about the effects of COVID-19 on our bodies and brains. Unfortunately, medical providers are learning as we weather the storm of this disease, so we’re still trying to understand all of the long-term damage that COVID-19 can do even as the virus spreads. Since the disease is so new, we’re still trying to accumulate enough data to understand the long-term effects of this illness. 

Ravi H. Gandhi, M.D., Board-Certified Neurosurgeon at Orlando Neurosurgery has been treating young patients with some serious brain conditions stemming from the COVID-19 virus. He spoke with Health News Network about what we understand so far about the long-term damage COVID-19 can cause.

What Neurological Symptoms Can Stem from COVID-19?

COVID-19 long term effects on the brain and neurologyThere were signs, even early during the first outbreaks of COVID-19, that the illness affects more than the respiratory tract. An August 2020 article in Nature reports, “In particular, as the disease spreads, neurological manifestations in patients with COVID-19 are reported more and more frequently in the scientific literature.” The article suggests symptoms as severe as stroke in many patients could be caused by COVID-19.

Most Americans are aware of the typical COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Chills and fever
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat

But there are other lingering symptoms that include neurological or psychological effects. According to Nature, these can include:

  • Brain fog and confusion
  • Depression
  • Loss of smell
  • Nerve damage
  • Organ damage
  • Numbness in the arms or legs
  • Ringing in the ears

Dr. Gandhi states, “I have seen young patients who have had these types of conditions, as well as patients who have presented with strokes or bleeds into their brain. These, we believe, are related to disruptions in coagulation, or blood clotting, based on the COVID-19 virus infection.”

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to track neurological symptoms when a patient is hospitalized on a ventilator. In these cases, the focus is on saving life, so the neurological manifestations of the disorder come after that primary imperative. Johns Hopkins puts it this way, “Patients with COVID-19 can be extremely weak and even confused, so we need to balance treating their immediate medical needs with information gathering to better understand how we can help fight the virus in others who may develop this condition in the future.”

However, an article in STAT News says as many as one in three patients recovering from COVID-19 may experience neurological or psychological after-affects from the infection. This necessitates the need for more research.

Dr. Gandhi shares, “I think patients are experiencing this kind of confusion or altered sensorium. The length of that varies from patient to patient and is also one of those things in this COVID box that is just very poorly understood.”

To date, researchers continue to try to find out why the brain is affected by COVID-19. Health News Network reports Johns Hopkins University is just one of the institutions continuing to research the long-term damage COVID-19 can cause.

How Much Long-Term Damage Can COVID Do to Our Brains and Bodies?

Doctors and scientists continue to work together to assess the long-term effects of COVID-19. Dr. Gandhi says, “We have lots of different viruses that can insert themselves into nerve fiber or nerve tissue and that can lead to disruption in signals and things like that, that are being transmitted through our nerves.”

This latest data elevates the COVID-19 virus beyond an acute care issue to a more chronic condition that can linger long after the initial respiratory symptoms are over. Johns Hopkins University has gathered data showing, “Younger patients in their 30s and 40s are suffering possibly life-changing neurological issues due to strokes.” They report a variety of conditions affecting the brain, including:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Confusion 
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Some patients experience an onset of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis or respiratory failure when the body’s immune system goes haywire and attacks the nerves. More research needs to be done, but the latest data suggests that there are three potential ways that COVID-19 could cause long-term harm to the brain:

  • Blood clotting abnormalities that can cause a stroke
  • Immune system malfunction as our bodies muster a defense against COVID-19
  • Severe infection in the brain, which may be why patients experience a loss of smell

In addition to the physical impact, the pandemic is also causing psychological distress and disruption for people undergoing isolation for long periods. This occurs both in the hospital setting as well as when a patient is at home. Dr. Gandhi states, “Humans are naturally group animals and being alone or forced to be alone is having a significant psychological impact on patients.”

How Can I Better Prepare in Case I’m Exposed?

COVID-19 long term effects on the brain and neurologyDr. Gandhi encourages people to improve their health now, before they’re exposed to the virus, saying, “Maintaining good physical health through exercise and diet are very important to be able to fare well through this pandemic that we’re in right now.”

Consult with your physician to determine the best regimen to improve your health. Some options may include:

  • Adding vitamins such as zinc and vitamin C to your diet
  • Decreasing stress
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting more sleep at night
  • Improving your diet
  • Increasing fluid intake to prevent dehydration

All of these preventative measures may aid your body’s natural immune system response to the virus. 

There is, however, some good news about COVID-19 to share. Dr. Gandhi says, “Our mortality rate is decreasing exponentially, our knowledge and understanding of how to treat patients, and some of the side effects, is increasing rapidly.” 

If you have any questions about your health or the effects of COVID-19, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the skilled team at Orlando Neurosurgery. We are committed to your health.

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