Dr Emily Isham is a GP with qualifications in Women's & Children's Health, and Public Health.
We have now all heard about the data proving that the COVID-19 vaccines being administered around the world currently are significantly reducing rates of hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19.
But what about long COVID? Given so many cases of long COVID were triggered by just a mild initial infection, can you still get long COVID from a breakthrough infection, after being fully vaccinated against COVID-19?
Firstly, let’s break down what exactly long COVID is.
Long COVID is how we define the cluster of lingering, persistent symptoms after a COVID-19 infection – it is usually considered long COVID if these symptoms last for over a month. These long-term symptoms often include shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, loss of smell, insomnia and brain fog.
Some estimates indicate approximately 30% of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients develop long COVID – and you may have heard these patients referred to as “COVID-19 long-haulers.” One long-hauler reported “even small tasks like having a shower can mean having to rest for about one to two hours afterwards.”
We need to adapt to a world where we live with COVID-19 and it doesn’t overwhelm the health system, so our goal is to stop hospitalisations and deaths and vaccines can help us to do this.
Getting vaccinated also contributes to wider herd immunity, and the quicker we build a herd immunity “wall” around the community, the less likely more variants will develop. Herd immunity means that the virus is less likely to grab hold within a community, and the chain of transmission will be more disrupted, meaning that those who are vulnerable will be protected, including those who have cancer or who have previously been on cancer treatment.
Can breakthrough infections lead to long COVID?
Theoretically, it is possible for the mild breakthrough infections after vaccination to trigger long COVID, however many doctors globally are saying that it’s not really happening much at all.
According to Dr Greg Vanichkachorn, working with post-COVID-19 syndrome patients at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, US, breakthrough infections resulting in long COVID are “quite rare”, and this sentiment is echoed by other clinics. Many doctors report that they haven’t seen any long COVID patients who had been vaccinated.
They do caution, however, that it may be too soon to determine accurate data and understand the vaccines’ effects on long COVID. That is because COVID-19 vaccines have only started widespread roll-out globally within the past three to four months, which is not enough time to identify long COVID patients following their vaccines.
Currently, large studies are underway to determine the rate of long COVID after breakthrough infections. So far, only a small study has been recently published from Israel showing that several healthcare workers had experienced long COVID after breakthrough infections, but this only encompassed mild symptoms, including cough, fatigue and weakness, for approximately six weeks.
Researchers are uncertain about the cause, but are considering whether they might be due to prolonged immune responses or lung scarring and organ damage after their initial acute episode.
Despite all this uncertainty and continued study, one thing is certain, vaccines remain one of the best ways to lower your risk of getting long COVID because they have been proven to safely and dramatically lower your risk of a COVID infection. We also know that these effective vaccines are safe and recommended for those with underlying medical conditions or otherwise immunocompromised, like those in our rare cancer community.