COVID-19 Can Destroy Your Life Without Ending It

The novel coronavirus can cause strokes and other life-long complications, even in younger patients without other visible symptoms.


COVID-19 cases in Canada are on the rise, and public health experts are struggling to convince people to limit their contacts to get the pandemic under control.

In particular, cases are rising in younger demographics. While it’s true that young patients have a lower risk of death than older patients, the case fatality rate isn’t the only measure of impact that the novel coronavirus can have.

Now that we know more about the spectrum of effects of COVID-19, it’s time for a wider discussion of the potential long-term complications of infection.

Reframing the narrative around asymptomatic cases

Early on in the pandemic, many people were focused on the high rates of asymptomatic cases and potential flu-like symptoms of COVID-19.

To put this into perspective, 95 percent of polio cases are asymptomatic, and yet people were still understandably scared of infection. Polio left many patients paralyzed or dependent on full-body machines called iron lungs to help them breathe.

In truth, even with the vast majority of patients having no symptoms at all, polio had no cure or treatment and was highly infectious. Many people still suffered long-term harm, and the same is likely with COVID-19.

Even without other symptoms, infection raises stroke risk

COVID-19 isn’t just a respiratory illness. It can also cause large blood clots to form that can block blood flow to the brain and trigger a stroke.

An international study led by researchers at Western University investigated stroke risk for COVID-19 patients. Using data from 160 cases from Canada, the United States, and Iran, around 2 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients suffered a stroke.

“One of the most eye-opening findings of this study is that for patients under 50 years old, many were totally asymptomatic when they had a stroke related to COVID-19,” said principal investigator Luciano Sposato in a press release.

“This means that for these patients, the stroke was their first symptom of the disease.”

The study broke down patients by age, but blockages in large blood vessels was high across all age groups, even without other chronic conditions are known to increase risk of COVID-19 severity.

“The take-home message here for healthcare providers is that if you are seeing a patient with a stroke, particularly in those under 50 years old with large clots, you need to think of COVID-19 as a potential cause even in the absence of respiratory symptoms,” added Sposato.

Long-term effects like shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, neurological effects, heart and kidney damage, and joint and muscle pain have been documented.

Clear messages for young Canadians

It’s easy to single out big parties as a transmission source, but young people can be exposed in many other ways. They often have limited financial stability, which can mean living with roommates in small spaces, or working jobs in places like bars or restaurants where they serve customers without masks, or relying on sometimes crowded public transportation to get to work or school.

These are factors that will be hard to avoid.

Socializing is also important for mental health, especially for young people. They may also face peer pressure when it comes to attending social gatherings.

Young Canadians need clear messages about the severity of the risks that they personally face if they become infected so they can make informed decisions. And they need clear guidelines on how to reduce their risk when possible.

Despite higher chances of asymptomatic or mild cases, and lower risk of death, young people can have lifelong complications. Now that we have a better understanding of these more rare symptoms, it’s time to refocus the narrative to include the long-term effects for COVID-19 survivors.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.