LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – 2022/03/09: A protester holds up a placard demanding research into Long … [+] Covid-19 during the demonstration. A protest group in Parliament Square demands the government invest some money into researching Long Covid-19. They say many people are experiencing life-changing injuries due to health complications following exposure to Covid-19 variants in the last two years. (Photo by Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
While the world grappled with the uncertainties as the Covid-19 pandemic unfurled since early 2020, one thing became clear: a portion of people who recovered from Covid-19 continued to experience new or exacerbated symptoms that lasted for several weeks or months on end. Also known as long Covid syndrome, it is characterized by extreme fatigue, low mood, pulmonary fibrosis, shortness of breath, insomnia, diabetes, and memory issues, among other complications.
The causes of long Covid still remain hazy. Some studies say it may develop thanks to higher levels of antibodies that the immune system generates to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus while others claim the virus causes sustained damages in certain types of patients. A new study published in the journal Current Medical Research and Opinion, has found that long Covid is not only far more likely to afflict women as compared to their male counterparts, but they will also experience a completely different set of symptoms.
The team of researchers attempted to delve into some of the sex differences in immune response as it has been believed that women tend to mount faster and more robust immune responses to viral and bacterial infections.
To gain a better understanding of how this plays out with the coronavirus, the researchers delved into data that included approximately 1.3 million patients. They particularly focused on women patients with long Covid who reported a wide range of issues. This included mood disorders, gastrointestinal and rheumatological conditions, and also issues with different parts of the body including the skin, nose, throat, and ears.
On the other hand, men were far more likely to report medical conditions associated with the kidneys like diabetes. The team of researchers referred to Covid-19 studies published in peer-reviewed journals and preprint servers from December 2019 to May 2021.
Out of the 4346 studies they shortlisted, they analyzed only 35 papers that included the gender of the studies’ participants clearly. These research projects were conducted before the Covid-19 vaccinations became widely available.
“Females mount more rapid and robust innate and adaptive immune responses, which can protect them from initial infection and severity. However, this same difference can render females more vulnerable to prolonged autoimmune-related diseases,” the researchers wrote. “Sex hormone differences may also contribute to the asymmetry in risk and outcomes between sexes, based on overlapping symptoms of long COVID syndrome with those of perimenopause and menopause.”
They further noted that women are far more likely to work in professions like nursing and education where they come in contact with a higher number of people. Women are also far more likely to face more difficulties in gaining access to adequate health care than men that could result in further complications after recovering from Covid-19.
“Gender is also important in diagnosis of diseases, particularly in chronic conditions where women are often diagnosed later than men. This is important for long COVID syndrome, as the symptoms in women may be dismissed as being psychologically similar to the myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome observed in Lyme disease,” the authors added.
However, a major limitation of the study is that the researchers had access to small data sets, thanks to only a few published studies that reported data based on gender during the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers hope that going forward, global tracking of long Covid symptoms in women and men can offer additional insights in how biological differences play out after a SARS-CoV-2 infection.