One of the questions weighing on many people’s minds at the moment is whether you can still get long-COVID after you’ve been fully vaccinated or if the vaccine will help remedy some of your lingering symptoms. There’s currently very little hard data on the question, but there have been a few studies and surveys that hold promise.
Long Haulers COVID
Long-COVID remains a bit of an enigma. It generally refers to a range of new or ongoing symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Unusually, it doesn’t just impact those who fell severely ill with the disease but can also affect people who had a mild illness and barely experienced symptoms. Estimates vary, but it’s thought to affect between 5 and 10 percent of people who’ve caught COVID-19.
Typically, symptoms include shortness of breath, a lingering cough, tiredness or fatigue, and a “foggy” feeling in the brain that makes it hard to concentrate. However, practically every single symptom has been reported, ranging from hair loss and tinnitus to recurrent toe rashes and changes in period cycles.
Scientists and doctors aren’t also totally sure how to define this condition either. In some cases, it presents like a post-viral fatigue syndrome, which can be common in many nasty viral infections including the flu, but in others, it appears to be the effects of permanent organ damage. Some have speculated whether autoimmunity is linked to long-COVID, whereby the infection makes some people's immune systems go into overdrive, a bit like an auto-immune disease.
Long-COVID and Vaccines
If you’re currently experiencing long-COVID and you're awaiting a vaccine dose, there is some interesting evidence that the shot might help ease your symptoms.
A survey [PDF], published May 2021 by the University of Exeter and the University of Kent in the UK, asked over 900 people about their experiences with long-COVID after receiving the vaccine, concluding that 56.7 percent saw an overall improvement in their symptoms. Some saw all of their symptoms disappear, while others found that only a select few symptoms had been resolved. On the other hand, 18.7 percent saw a worsening of their symptoms and 24.6 percent remained unchanged. Altogether, that's relatively promising.
“I’ve heard from people who say they no longer have ‘brain fog,’ their gastrointestinal problems have gone away, or they stopped suffering from the shortness of breath they’ve been living with since being diagnosed with COVID-19,” says Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale who is looking to generate hard data on vaccinated long-haulers.
In these cases, Professor Iwasaki says, it appears vaccines are helping the immune system to fight off residual virus lurking in their bodies. Alternatively, the vaccine may help to stop people’s immune systems deal with the infection, stopping it from going into overdrive.
There’s even less data available on whether fully vaccinated people are less likely to get lingering symptoms after a COVID-19 infection, but here’s what’s out there so far.
A recent pre-print paper, which is yet to be peer-viewed, posted on bioRxiv has also looked into the question of whether vaccinated people need to worry about developing long-COVID. They posted a poll about long-COVID on a Facebook group designed to support people recovering from COVID-19. Of the 1,949 fully vaxxed participants, 44 people reported a symptomatic COVID-19 infection after vaccine and 24 of those said they had experienced long-COVID.
Granted, a Facebook poll is hardly the most scientific method of gaining information, but the paper is one of the few currently published on the issue.
The Threat of The Delta Variant
The question, however, gets more complex when we consider variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. There's an ever-mounting stack of evidence that the Delta variant is far more contagious, which helps to explain why it has become so prevalent across much of the world. There’s some evidence the vaccines may be fractionally less effective at preventing infection from the Delta variant too.
How this relates to long-COVID, once again, is unclear. Nevertheless, the threat of the Delta should only serve to highlight the importance of getting vaccinated. While so-called "breakthrough cases" — COVID-19 infections in people who have already been vaccinated — are more common with the Delta variant, the vaccines remain highly effective against serious illness and hospitalization. Evidence indicates that asymptomatic or milder infections are more likely to result in a speedy recovery, so it's certainly still worth getting fully vaccinated.