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Healthwise Maui

Q: What is “long-haul COVID”?

Dr. Vijak Ayasanonda, Vice Chairman & Co-Medical Director, Emergency Department, Maui Health: Most people with COVID-19 indeed recover from the illness. But there is growing evidence that some people experience long-term symptoms even after they recover. These symptoms can last for weeks or even months after the initial COVID-19 infection.

According to the CDC, some common symptoms of “long-haul COVID” can include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain and chest pain. Others have reported long-term symptoms including “brain fog,” depression, persistent muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and a racing heartbeat.

While less common, some people have reported more serious long-term complications from COVID-19, including inflammation of the heart, persistent problems with lung function, kidney damage, skin rashes, hair loss, ongoing loss of taste and smell, memory problems, anxiety and mood changes.

Even though COVID-19 is thought of as a disease that is most deadly to older people, “long-haul COVID” can affect people of all ages, including young people.

Scientists are still learning about COVID-19 and how it affects the body, so it’s not yet clear why some people experience long-term symptoms. And because there is such a wide variety of symptoms, doctors are still learning how to treat this problem.

The bottom line is that COVID-19 can be dangerous to anyone, not just those who are older and/or have existing health and medical issues. “Long-haul COVID” is real and is another reason to continue vigilance in protecting yourself and others. This includes getting a vaccine when it’s available to you and continuing to wear a mask, social distance, avoid gatherings and wash your hands frequently, even after getting vaccinated.

Q: I’ve read that the COVID-19 vaccine is a new kind of vaccine called mRNA. What does that mean?

Chrissy Miller, RN, Employee Health Manager, Maui Health: In the past, many vaccines worked by using a small amount of inactive or weak virus to trigger an immune response. This taught the body how to fight the virus so that when the person was later exposed to live virus, they would not get seriously ill.

The mRNA vaccine, while considered new, is not unknown and has been studied for more than a decade. It works by teaching the immune system to fight a virus; however, unlike an inactivated vaccine, it doesn’t contain any of the virus itself.

Instead, this vaccine delivers strands of genetic material called mRNA, contained inside a protective fatty coating. The term mRNA stands for “Messenger RNA.” It includes instructions that show cells how to replicate part of the “spike protein” found in COVID-19. Once the immune system recognizes this protein, it develops antibodies to fight it. These antibodies then stay in your system so that your body is ready to fight off a real COVID-19 infection if you are exposed in the future.

Because the vaccine activates your immune system, some people experience side effects, including pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle ache, headache, low fever and chills. These side effects are a sign that your immune system is activated, and the vaccine is working.

It’s impossible to get a real COVID infection from the vaccine because the mRNA only shows your cells how to replicate part of the “spike protein,” not the virus itself.

The mRNA does not enter the cell nucleus or affect the body’s own genetic makeup. The cell’s enzymes naturally break down and remove the mRNA after the process is complete.

Each of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA has been tested in around 40,000 people and has been found to be very safe.

* Physicians, providers and administrative staff who practice at Maui Health System hospitals and clinics answer questions from the public in “Healthwise Maui,” which appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Maui Health System operates Maui Memorial Medical Center, Maui Memorial Medical Center Outpatient Clinic, Kula Hospital & Clinic and Lana’i Community Hospital and accepts all patients. To submit a question, go to the website at mauihealth.org/healthwise.

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