A new study has found that people with type 2 diabetes are significantly more likely to suffer from the symptoms of long COVID.
The finding may be considered unsurprising. The connection between diabetes and COVID-19 has been known since the earliest days of the pandemic. As time passed, it became apparent that the relationship between the two conditions was even closer and more complex than originally imagined:
It stands to reason that there would be a relationship between diabetes and long COVID symptoms.
What Do We Really Know about Long Covid?
Experts have had an incredibly difficult time getting a firm hold of long COVID. The condition consists of a very wide range of symptoms, many of them hazy and difficult to assess objectively. Willing scientists find themselves confronted with millions of anecdotes but relatively little reliable data.
Here’s how the CDC defines what it calls “Post-COVID conditions”:
Post-COVID conditions are a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Even people who did not have COVID-19 symptoms in the days or weeks after they were infected can have post-COVID conditions. These conditions can present as different types and combinations of health problems for different lengths of time.
The CDC lists 18 different symptoms of long COVID, which range from fever and diarrhea to mood changes and “brain fog.” That long list isn’t even close to exhaustive: a July 2021 survey published in The Lancet identified “203 symptoms in 10 organ systems.”
Long COVID symptoms can range from the merely frustrating to the genuinely “debilitating”.
Estimates on the prevalence of long COVID differ wildly. A recent large study found that about a third of patients previously diagnosed with COVID-19 had one or more features of long COVID, but other studies have found rates as high as 50% and as low as 5%.
Curiously, many studies have found that women are more likely to suffer long COVID symptoms. Thankfully, however, early data suggests that long COVID symptoms are “rare and mainly of short duration” in children. And vaccinations do appear to protect against long COVID.
Scientists, to put it simply, do not understand why long COVID occurs. The virus itself, which has been cleared out of the body, cannot still be causing health problems. Theories abound, and it’s possible or likely that there is no one explanation, that many different things are happening in many different people. And until we understand the mechanisms that cause long COVID, it will be difficult to treat the mysterious condition.
Long COVID and Diabetes
Given how little is truly known about long COVID, the science on the relationship between long COVID and diabetes is understandably not very precise. Here’s what we do know:
A recent study in the journal Cell found that COVID patients with type 2 diabetes are more likely to suffer from long COVID. Diabetes was one of four factors identified as significant risk factors for long COVID symptoms. The other three factors—“SARS-CoV-2 RNAemia, Epstein-Barr virus viremia, and specific autoantibodies”—are not identifiable without a specifically targeted blood test. (The study did not examine enough patients with type 1 diabetes to draw any conclusions about that condition).
There is hope that this study, one of the first good ones to begin uncovering the details of long COVID, will spur more research that can help identify effective preventative measures and treatments.
Other smaller studies have also found that long COVID may make glucose management more difficult and that patients with type 2 diabetes are significantly more likely to feel long COVID fatigue.
The book isn’t by any means closed on this. A small study in the journal Diabetes found that diabetes was “not a risk factor for experiencing long-term post-COVID symptoms.” No doubt more evidence will emerge in the coming months.
Can You Treat Long COVID?
Not really, no.
At the moment, there are no evidence-based treatment options for long COVID. The CDC’s webpage devoted to long COVID therapies concentrates on soft remedies, like stress coping techniques. Some have argued that therapies for similar chronic disabilities, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, may offer actionable lessons for patients with long COVID.
The CDC does suggest that it might be helpful to employ common sense lifestyle adjustments, like getting nutritious food, exercise, and adequate sleep. That echoes a September 2021 essay by two doctors that suggests that patients with diabetes and long COVID should prioritize glycemic control, nutrition, and exercise, all of which could help alleviate fatigue and “brain fog” and speed recovery time.
However, experts in caution against self-management of symptoms using over-the-counter medicines, supplements, and dietary changes. Platforms such as Facebook “are a potential source of conflicting information and misinformation.”
Read more about COVID-19, exercise, Intensive management, long COVID.