INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – It’s been a mystery to scientists for more than a year and half: Why do some people who’ve been infected with the coronavirus and recover suffer symptoms of the virus weeks or months later?
That answer may be in a new paper published by researchers in Frontiers in Immunology.
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When a person is infected with a virus — COVID-19 in this case — cells that are designed to attack and kill the virus are recruited. They are called cytokines.
However, because the coronavirus is so lethal, the body ends up recruiting more cytokines than it needs, causing the body to go into overdrive. Instead of protecting and healing the body, the cytokines end up doing the opposite.
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They end up causing harm in the form of inflammation. In COVID-19 long-haulers, this continues even after the body has cleared the virus.
“COVID came in and once it left, it left all of this inflammation and the person is just trying to get rid of all of this inflammation,” Dr. Ram Yeleti, chief physician executive at Community Health Network, told News 8. “So it really becomes a chronic inflammatory disease in those individuals. COVID turned on the inflammation and our bodies aren’t able to turn it off anymore in these long-haulers. That’s what it looks like.”
Yeleti likens it to a light switch. The inflammatory light switch is flipped on during a coronavirus infection. The body then recruits cytokines to fight the virus. When the virus clears, the light remains on for unknown reasons.
Since the cytokines are still revved up, they need something else to attack. What do they attack? The person’s body.
Yeleti also says an important question that requires further investigation is when will the long-hauler’s body be able to turn off the immune system that remains in overdrive so that it resets itself? But perhaps most importantly, Yeleti says, the best way to avoid becoming a long-hauler is to avoid getting COVID-19 altogether by getting vaccinated.