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The One COVID Side Effect Doctors Can't See

Contracting COVID-19 doubles your risk of developing this disorder.
Sad woman on a sofa.

Nearly 1 in 5 people diagnosed with COVID-19 develop a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety, a new study has found.

In the report published last week in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, researchers looked at the medical records of more than 69 million people in the US, including 62,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19. They found that 18% of patients developed a psychiatric issue within three months of that diagnosis.

About 6% of COVID patients reported a mental health issue for the first time, compared to 3.4% who didn't have coronavirus—meaning COVID-19 almost doubled the risk. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

The Growing Link Between COVID and Brain Issues

Overall, the most common issues were anxiety disorders, insomnia and dementia. Elderly COVID patients were two to three times more likely to develop dementia than people without coronavirus.

It's unclear how long psychological issues might last. "That was within just the first three months," Paul Harrison, professor of psychiatry at Oxford and one of the study's authors, told NPR. "We of course don't know, in longer-term follow-ups, whether these risks will go on increasing — or whether once you get to three months, then the risks after you've had COVID really go back to the baseline risks that all of us experience."

It's been a long time since COVID-19 was considered a primarily respiratory illness. Scientists now know that the virus affects a range of body systems, including the brain, heart and lungs. 

Several other studies have linked COVID-19 (and other coronaviruses) to neurological issues. A July study published in the Lancet found that 55% of COVID patients reported neurological problems lasting more than three months after their diagnosis, including confusion, brain fog, an inability to focus, personality changes, insomnia and loss of taste and/or smell. The study's authors warned that the COVID pandemic might result in an "epidemic of brain damage," a phenomenon that occurred after the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Last month, researchers at Imperial College London found that some people infected with COVID-19 might develop long-term "cognitive deficits" equivalent to aging the brain by 10 years.

A meta-analysis earlier this year found that people infected with earlier coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS developed symptoms like delirium, anxiety, depression, manic symptoms, poor memory, and insomnia.

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What Causes It?

As for why, researchers aren't entirely sure. Simply contracting a life-threatening disease like COVID can lead to psychological issues like anxiety, depression and PTSD. And people who develop "long COVID" might become stressed or depressed about the chronic condition.

Some scientists theorize that neurological problems might result from the virus's tendency to cause brain inflammation, act on receptors in the brain, or reduce the supply of blood or oxygen to the area, causing damage.

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.