(NEXSTAR) — One of the most unique things about COVID-19 — and for many, one of the scariest — is the prospect that it can leave people with symptoms for months or even years after infection has passed. It’s a condition often referred to as “long COVID,” and its severity varies greatly from person to person.
Some people have found themselves fighting through brain fog and fatigue ever since their bout with the virus. A rare and unlucky bunch have had their senses of smell and taste marred, rewired so coffee and chocolate taste more like sewage or garbage. According to a meta-analysis of nearly 48,000 patients published last year, the most common long COVID symptoms are fatigue, headaches, attention disorder, hair loss, difficulty breathing and loss of taste/smell.
As the omicron variant of the virus infects more Americans than any prior variants, are we about to see millions of people debilitated by long COVID for months or years to come?
Experts agree it’s too soon to say. After all, omicron was first identified in the U.S. less than two months ago. However, there are some educated guesses we can make about omicron and long COVID based on what we know about the variant so far.
“[It’s] too early to tell since omicron is so new, but my suspicion is that [long COVID] is certainly possible,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. He said long COVID is possible following any infection where the virus enters the body and triggers an immune response that leads to symptoms.
“We should always be aware that when people get symptomatic infection … anywhere from 10 to up to 30 plus percent of people will go on to have persistence of symptoms,” agreed Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, in an interview with Spectrum News. “Long COVID can happen no matter what virus variant occurs. There’s no evidence that there’s any difference between delta or beta or now omicron.”
However, the fact that omicron seems to lead to more mild symptoms than prior variants, especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted, is a sign we could see fewer cases of long COVID resulting from this surge. Studies have found that while mild COVID cases can lead to long-lasting symptoms, your chances of long COVID are much higher if you suffer serious illness or hospitalization.
“Because omicron causes milder disease we are all hoping for a lower probability of chronic symptoms because there is possibly less immune activation,” said Chin-Hong.
“While omicron is more infectious, infectivity is not linked to an increased likelihood of long COVID. It is more linked to severity,” virologist Dr. Andrew Catchpole told Healthline. “On average, omicron infections are less severe than what was seen with other variants or the original strain, [so] we would expect the proportion of long COVID cases to be lower with omicron.”
Another piece of good news for omicron sufferers is it’s less likely to cause loss of taste or smell. Those symptoms are known to linger with people for weeks or months.
As researchers continue to keep an eye on omicron and it’s link to long COVID, they’ve also been studying how getting vaccinated affects the chance of becoming a longhauler.
“We know from several studies before omicron that the risk of long COVID is lower in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated and the nature of the symptoms is different if previously vaccinated,” said Chin-Hong, explaining vaccinated patients were less likely to report brain fog and shortness of breath – two more symptoms known to affect people for long periods of time.