In some people who develop COVID-19 and experience lasting symptoms, those symptoms — including severe fatigue — closely resemble chronic fatigue syndrome and may have biological similarities, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
As the study authors notes, chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis) is a debilitating condition that can last for years, causing symptoms like profound fatigue, malaise after physical exertion, lack of restorative sleep, cognitive deficits, and a drop in blood pressure when getting up from a sitting or lying position. It often develops in the aftermath of a bacterial or viral infection. While some doctors have been skeptical of chronic fatigue syndrome — questioning whether it’s caused by biological abnormalities, or might be mostly psychological in nature — the authors of the latest study pointed out that there are distinct biological abnormalities seen in both chronic fatigue syndrome and long COVID-19.
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Among the commonalities between chronic fatigue syndrome and long COVID-19 that the study authors identified is redox imbalance (also known as oxidative stress), in which there is a disruption in levels of oxidants — molecules from within or outside the body that can damage cells — and antioxidants, molecules that can protect against this damage. Other commonalities include systemic (body-wide) inflammation, brain inflammation, and a hypometabolic state (reduced metabolism). What causes these changes in chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t well understood, and they have only recently been identified in long COVID-19 — but understanding their causes may lead to the development of treatments for both conditions.
Up to 75% of those with COVID-19 experience long-lasting symptoms
As noted in a UPI article on the study, as many as 75% of people who develop COVID-19 experience symptoms that last for months, potentially including severe fatigue. This can happen even in people who initially develop mild or moderate symptoms of COVID-19, although lasting debilitating symptoms are more common in people who initially develop severe COVID-19. As we wrote earlier this year, one study found that three to nine months after the onset of COVID-19, fatigue and loss of taste or smell were each seen in about 14% of people. Another study found that about half of all people who developed COVID-19 experienced symptoms of depression months later.
Another sign that COVID-19 can lead to lasting biological changes is the increased risk of diabetes seen in people who develop the illness. A study from earlier this year found that among people who survived the first 30 days after developing COVID-19, over the next six months, there were an additional 6.5 new cases of diabetes for every 1,000 people who weren’t hospitalized for COVID-19, and an additional 37 new cases of diabetes for every 1,000 people who were hospitalized for COVID-19.
It is “imperative that increased research be focused on both long COVID-19” and chronic fatigue syndrome, the authors of the latest study wrote. Fortunately, they noted, the United States and several other countries have committed funding to study long-term chronic illness related to COVID-19.
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