We usually think of illnesses and infections as short-lived. Yes, it feels icky and uncomfortable when you are sick, but in a week or two you recover and go back to normal. While this is the trajectory many common illnesses take, it’s also true that some infections have long-term effects on our health and can impact our ability to feel well and thrive.
For example, it’s known that even after acute symptoms, some infections can elicit an auto-immune response that causes symptoms to linger long after the initial infection. According to the CDC, infections that have this characteristic include chlamydia, strep throat, and Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Other infections, such as Lyme disease and COVID-19, produce “long haul” symptoms, such as brain fog, chronic fatigue, neurological symptoms, and muscle aches and pains. Still, other infections may contribute to the proliferation of new diseases down the road, including cancer, autoimmune conditions, heart and lung diseases, and endocrine disorders such as diabetes.
Learning about the longer term impacts of infections can be stressful, especially if you are currently dealing with symptoms caused by a past infection, or suspect you might be. At the same time, understanding the root cause of your challenges can be empowering, because it’s the first step to healing and once more leading a full and healthy life.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common infections that can have long-term impacts on health, what these impacts look like, how to get diagnosed, and how to start on the road to recovery.
Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)
Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) is a common herpes virus that causes mononucleosis, or “mono.” The virus is so prevalent, in fact, that most of us have had it, even if we didn’t know it. Up to 95% of the population has had EVB, though many infections are asymptomatic.
The virus is most prevalent among adolescents and young adults aged 15-24. It’s mostly spread through bodily fluids like saliva, which is why it’s known as the “kissing disease.” It can also spread through close contact with items containing saliva, such as utensils or toothbrushes, or through blood or semen. Symptoms of EBV include sore or itchy throat, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged tonsils, fever, and exhaustion.
Long-term issues with EBV can present in several different ways. First, although in most people, acute symptoms of EBV resolve in about 2-4 weeks, some people end up having initial symptoms for much longer. When this happens, it’s called Chronic active Epstein-Barr virus infection (CAEBV). People with CAEBV experience the same symptoms as anyone who becomes infected with EBV, such as fever, fatigue, and swollen glands. But these symptoms can last for several months, or longer, and can lead to complications such as anemia, nerve damage, or pneumonia.
Other times, long-term health impacts of EBV are noticed years later. This is because, even after an initial infection, EBV lives in the body in a latent form, and can get reactivated. For example, there is even some evidence that EBV can become reactivated after a COVID-19 infection.
EBV can also be involved in serious diseases years after you’ve been infected with it. There are several different cancers associated with EBV, including lymphoma and gastric cancers. Additionally, EBV may be associated with autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection spread by tick bites. Initial symptoms can include fever, fatigue, headache, and a classic “bullseye” rash, known as erythema migrans. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics; if left untreated, it can cause serious joint, nerve, and heart complications.
Most people who are properly treated soon after their infection will recover, but some experience long-term effects after Lyme disease, even if they’ve been treated with antibiotics. When this happens, it’s known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS). Symptoms of PTLDS can include pain, exhaustion, depression, and sleep issues. Experts aren’t entirely sure why some people develop this syndrome, but it may be due to an overreaction of the immune system.
Most of us are familiar with COVID-19, the infection causing the current pandemic and public health emergency. COVID-19 is mostly spread by breathing in the air of people who are infected. Symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, and digestive issues. Severe infections can result in pneumonia, respiratory failure, sepsis, heart issues, kidney issues, blood clots or strokes, organ failure, and death.
Even when COVID-19 doesn’t result in hospitalization or death, it can lead to other long-term issues, including “long COVID,” and new manifestations of other diseases. Long COVID symptoms can happen even after a mild infection, and can last months or years. Symptoms can include chronic fatigue, brain fog, memory issues, breathing problems, rapid heartbeat, digestive upset, and muscle or joint pain. Experts are still trying to understand what causes long COVID, who is susceptible to it, and how it can be treated.
In May 2022, the CDC released a report about the long-term health conditions that can result from COVID-19. They estimated that as many as 1 in 5 adults may experience these conditions at least four weeks after an infection. These may include neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, kidney, endocrine, and muscular skeletal issues, as well as mental health issues. Since COVID-19 is still considered a new virus, experts are still trying to understand how long these issues may last and the best way to treat them.
Treatment For Long-Term Issues Caused By Infections
If you suspect that you are experiencing the longer term impacts of an infection, please reach out to your care team to share your symptoms and concerns. Depending on your symptoms and what infection may have caused them, your care team may order diagnostic tests, such as blood tests or imaging tests, to better understand what is going on.
Getting a proper diagnosis and treatment for issues caused by infections can be complicated, may take years, and is often frustrating. That’s why finding a care team that values both your mind and body, that listens compassionately to your concerns, and takes your symptoms seriously, is vital.
Often, treating long-term issues caused by infections requires a holistic approach, combining traditional medicine with other modalities and treatments. For example, care plans may involve approved medications and medical procedures, experimental medications, herbal remedies and supplements, nutritional and lifestyle modifications, as well as mindfulness and meditation techniques.
If you are dealing with a chronic condition, it’s easy to feel hopeless at times. But once you identify the root cause of what you are struggling with — including a possible past infection as a trigger for your symptoms — you are one step closer to recovery.
Countless factors may play a role in chronic illness, and the impact of past infection is only one aspect of what may be the root cause of your illness. A functional medicine doctor can assess all aspects of your health throughout your entire life to determine the root cause of your current symptoms or illnesses.
If you’re ready to tackle the root cause of your symptoms, it’s time to get serious about your health and embark on the path toward making more positive changes.
When you get started with GritWell, you’ll be matched with a team of three — a health coach with specialized training in root cause medicine and integrative nutrition, a functional medicine doctor, and a care advocate–– all three working together to help you heal.
Your health and happiness is important, and there is a road to healing. You just have to take the first step. Explore our available plans and start your health journey today.
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