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Study: COVID Stress On the Body Can Last For Months

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Key Takeaways

  • Research has found people can experience physical side effects from COVID-19 for two to three months after the onset of symptoms.
  • The virus impacted sleep quality and resting heart rate.
  • Experts say getting vaccinated is the best form of prevention.

Scientists are still learning more about the long-term effects of COVID-19, including just how long those lingering symptoms can last. But new research finds that the stress from the virus can last for months.

The study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, is part of the Scripps Research Translational Institute’s ongoing DETECT study, which uses data from wearable devices like Fitbits to track viral infections, including COVID-19.

For this particular study, the researchers analyzed data from 875 people who had symptoms of a respiratory infection between March 2020 and January 2021. Those participants were tested for COVID-19: 234 had the virus, while 641 did not.

The researchers continued to analyze health data from the patients during the study period and found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 experienced changes to their health that lasted for two to three months.

Patients who had COVID-19 experienced disrupted sleep quality for about 24 days after their symptoms started, and their step counts took 32 days to normalize, suggesting they weren’t as active as they typically were.

Resting heart rate was also impacted, with COVID-positive patients having a rapid heartbeat that didn’t return to normal until, on average, 79 days after they first experienced symptoms.

What Is Post-COVID?

While lingering symptoms from COVID-19 are usually referred to as “long-haul COVID,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) termed this health phenomenon “post-COVID conditions.”

The CDC defines post-COVID conditions as a “wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.” Post-COVID conditions can impact people who didn’t have COVID-19 symptoms in the days or weeks after they were infected.

There are many potential indicators of post-COVID symptoms, but the CDC says some of the most common are:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)

Why Does It Take So Long to Recover From COVID-19?

It’s not entirely clear, but doctors aren’t shocked by the latest findings.

“There has been emerging data from the study of COVID patients with long-lasting symptoms that has demonstrated autonomic instability so these findings, using wearable technologies, is not surprising,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Verywell.

Tanaya Bhowmick, MD, associate professor of medicine, infectious diseases at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, agrees, telling Verywell that she’s “not surprised” by the findings. “We know that viruses can cause a really dramatic effect on the body in terms of an inflammatory response,” she says. “COVID-19 doesn’t just affect the lungs, but other parts of the body as well, including the heart.”

Some people may even have damage from the virus “that can’t be reversed,” Bhowmick says. “Or, if it can, it may take time."

There’s no established answer for the resting heart rate issues, but “we think that the prolonged resting heart rate changes are the result of ongoing inflammation or dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system,” lead study author Jennifer Radin, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist with the Digital Medicine Division at Scripps Research Translational Institute, tells Verywell.

What This Means For You

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 dramatically lowers your risk of getting the virus—and dealing with potentially serious after-effects. You can make an appointment or find a vaccine site near you at vaccine.gov.

Can This Happen With Other Viruses?

It’s possible. “The flu virus can cause some really strange post-side effects,” Bhowmick says, citing gastroparesis, a condition that impacts gut motility, as one example.

“Other viruses can cause long-term effects on the body,” she says, adding that it’s unclear if COVID-19 is more likely to cause long-term issues than other viruses or if it just seems that way because so many people have had COVID-19 at once. 

“Studies this have not been done with other respiratory viruses but it would be worthwhile to replicate them with other viruses,” Adalja says.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Long COVID

 The answer is simple, experts say: Get vaccinated.

“Prevent getting sick in the first place by getting vaccinated, if you can,” Radin says. She also recommends wearing face masks and social distancing when you’re indoors for added protection.

Bhowmick says she hopes these study findings will help convince more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. “It’s clearly another reason why people should get vaccinated," she adds.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Radin J, Quer G, Ramos E et al. Assessment of Prolonged Physiological and Behavioral Changes Associated With COVID-19 Infection. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(7):e2115959. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.15959

  2. Post-COVID Conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 12, 2021.