‘I can’t take deep breaths anymore’: Some young adults feeling long-term effects from mild cases of COVID-19

Emily Jensen, 22, tested positive for COVID-19 in Edson, Alta., in early December. Her symptoms were common and expected: a loss of taste and smell, consistent coughing and a shortness of breath, she says. However, she was not expecting effects of the virus to linger into 2021.

Now, in early June, Jensen continues to battle symptoms despite testing negative nearly three weeks after her initial diagnosis. She says partaking in something as simple as a conversation is difficult at times because it’s hard to complete sentences.

“Just doing basic tasks, I’m out of breath, which is not normal for me at all,” says Jensen. “I can’t take deep breaths anymore; I have to take very short ones.”

Jensen is among those battling what experts are calling post-COVID syndrome. While many facing mild symptoms typically recover after two to three weeks, some like Jensen continue to feel the effects of the virus for months.

Early-stage research at Appalachian State University suggests Jensen is not alone in feeling this way. Senior primary investigator Steve Ratchford says the study of about 30 young people between the ages of 20 and 23 – 15 of whom had tested positive for mild cases of the virus within 20 days of the observation period – hints at the potential long-term effects of COVID-19 on youth.

“I did the full quarantine for 14 days after receiving my positive test and then I felt pretty good for a bit. But I still felt drowsy and my taste or smell wasn’t really back yet,” says Jensen. On the plus side, “The vertigo was gone after two and a half weeks.”

She says she realized she hadn’t fully recovered after attempting to exercise at a gym for the first time since testing positive. “I couldn’t run on a treadmill; I couldn’t lift the weights I used to do. I couldn’t do anything I was doing before.”

The researchers’ first two publications show that vascular health is down among youth who were relatively healthy prior to contracting the virus only three to four weeks after falling ill.

“We saw a dramatic decrease in the blood vessels’ abilities to open up in order to dilate and allow more blood in when necessary,” says Ratchford.

He adds that the average young and healthy adult’s arteries should be able to open 8 to 10 per cent for blood flow – however, the blood vessels of those who had recovered from COVID-19 could only open about 3 per cent.

“With every 1 per cent decrease in your blood vessels’ ability to open, your risk of cardiovascular disease (increases) by about 13 per cent,” says Ratchford. “If you were a smoker or diabetic or had any kind of underlying heart disease, that could exacerbate things.”

He notes some of the study’s subjects have reported feeling “winded going upstairs” and that “their heart just feels like it’s working too hard.” The subjects have been monitored for about six months and while many have had a decrease in symptoms four months after contracting the virus, Ratchford adds that the findings of his team’s early-stage research are still concerning.

While post-COVID syndrome and structural changes to COVID-19 patients’ hearts have been reported on, the majority of cases have been seen in middle-aged adults already deemed as high-risk for contracting the virus. German research from July 2020 found a dramatic difference between the cardiac health of middle-aged adults who recovered from COVID-19 and those who did not contract it. Out of the 100 people who had recovered, “78 showed structural changes to their hearts, 76 had evidence of a biomarker signaling cardiac injury typically found after a heart attack and 60 had signs of inflammation.”

Research on the long-term health of young adults post-COVID is limited and still preliminary, and there are concerns that adolescents and children may also be susceptible to long-term effects, says Amanda Morrow, co-director of the pediatric post-COVID rehabilitation clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland, Md.

“In general, most children and adolescents tend to have a very mild infection or (be) asymptomatic,” says Morrow. “But there is a group of patients we’re now seeing with persistent symptoms from COVID and we’re falling into this category of post-acute or long COVID.”

She says that in the patients she’s seen, adolescents make up the majority of post-COVID cases at Kennedy Krieger Institute. While there is no diagnostic test that tells doctors whether or not someone is battling post-COVID in particular, multi-disciplinary treatment such as physical and behavioral therapy, as well as medication, is available to help with symptoms.

“(Youth) are having trouble thinking; they’re having difficulties with school and attention spans,” says Laura Malone, a pediatric neurologist at Kennedy Krieger’s pediatric post-COVID rehabilitation clinic. Many patients have reported having low cognitive and physical endurance, including “some pretty debilitating headaches” in individuals who hadn’t experienced them prior to contracting COVID-19, she adds.

Like Jensen, many other young patients continue to face a loss or a distortion of taste or smell months after recovering. Malone says for some, it may take extended periods before they regain these senses.

“Celery is spicy and burns now,” says Jensen. “Beef doesn’t taste like beef and most citrus fruits taste rotten.”

Morrow and other experts encourage young people to get vaccinated since we won’t know the potential long-term impact of post-COVID syndrome until we have the research results.

“We don’t know everything about this virus yet,” says Morrow. “We have treatments to prevent it and that’s the best approach right now.”

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Miranda Caley

Editorial Intern

Miranda Caley is a fourth-year journalism student with a minor in women’s and gender studies. Originally from Newfoundland, she moved to Ottawa for her studies to learn about the rich and diverse cultures across Canada.

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