COVID-19 can cause long-term health effects and autoimmune disease.
Several autoimmune disorders have been linked to COVID-19 infection.
Autoimmune disease can happen with mild COVID-19, but the risk is higher in severe cases.
The world has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic — and, unfortunately, it is far from over. Even after we reach herd immunity with vaccination, we will no doubt still have questions about the long-term effects of COVID-19.
Some of these ongoing questions will probably have to do with COVID-19 and autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease — like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis — is a type of health condition where your immune system attacks your own body. And over the past year, a pattern has emerged: In some people, COVID-19 can cause autoimmune problems.
With all this in mind, you may be wondering: What do I need to know about the autoimmune effects of COVID-19? Read on to learn more about what we know so far about COVID-19 and autoimmune disorders.
Yes. COVID-19 infections can cause long-term health problems, even after recovery. This is sometimes called “long COVID.” Long COVID affects 10% of patients hospitalized with COVID. We don’t yet know how often it occurs in people with mild or asymptomatic cases.
Long COVID can include the following symptoms:
Shortness of breath
Anxiety and depression
Long COVID is currently being researched. We still don’t know how long these symptoms may last, or how to treat them. But it’s possible that — at least in part — long COVID could be a type of autoimmune process. This is especially likely because we already know that other viruses can trigger autoimmune disease.
Yes. In research studies, there is a connection between COVID-19 and autoimmune conditions. We don’t know for sure why this happens. It’s possible that a COVID-19 infection confuses your immune system, and causes it to attack your own body.
In some cases, people with COVID-19 have autoimmune symptoms soon after getting infected. For example, people with COVID-19 can lose their sense of smell. Loss of smell is common in autoimmune diseases, like lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Though we know there’s a connection between COVID-19 and autoimmune disease, at this point the numbers are small. More research will help us understand how COVID-19 is connected to autoimmune disease.
So far, COVID-19 infections are linked to these different autoimmune conditions:
This list may grow as doctors and scientists learn more about COVID-19.
Infections linked to AID include:
This may happen because of something called “molecular mimicry.” Molecular mimicry is when a virus or bacteria looks similar to our own cells. This can make it hard for your immune system to tell the difference between a foreign invader and your own body — triggering autoimmune disease.
It’s not clear. While we don’t fully understand who will have autoimmune problems with COVID-19, we do know some of the risk factors for long COVID. And remember: There’s some evidence that long COVID could actually be an autoimmune condition.
Risk factors for long COVID include:
Having severe COVID-19
Being of older age
Having overweight or obesity
And some of these risk factors — like being female or having obesity — are also risk factors for autoimmune disorders. This is true even in people who never have COVID-19.
Genetics also plays a role in determining if someone with COVID-19 will have autoimmune problems. Many other autoimmune conditions are caused when a person with a genetic predisposition encounters an environmental trigger (like an infection). And some COVID-19 autoimmune disorders seem to be more common in certain genetic groups, like children of sub-Saharan or Caribbean descent.
Some autoimmune conditions are diagnosed while you are sick with COVID-19. For example, people hospitalized with COVID-19 can have autoimmune disorders. These disorders can cause:
Uncontrolled high blood sugar
New autoimmune diseases could also be diagnosed after recovery from COVID-19 — though we don’t know much about this yet.
We don’t have much data on autoimmune disease in mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. So far, severe cases seem more likely to cause autoimmune problems. However, we do know that even mild cases can still lead to long COVID symptoms.
Early in the pandemic, experts suspected that people with autoimmune diseases might be more at risk for severe COVID-19. But in reality, this doesn’t seem to be true.
In fact, people who already have an autoimmune disorder don’t seem to have a higher risk for severe COVID-19. And after recovery, they aren’t any more likely to get long COVID, or to develop another (second) autoimmune condition.
COVID-19 can cause long-term health effects and autoimmune problems. More research is still needed on the connection between COVID-19 and the immune system. In the meantime, your best protection is to get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands often, and continue to avoid indoor crowded areas.