- Delaney DePue, 15, got COVID-19 last summer and still struggles to catch her breath.
- She was diagnosed with COPD, which is “considered a disease of the elderly.”
- She joins an increasingly visible group of young people that appear to have long-hauler symptoms.
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Delaney DePue, a 15-year-old in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, used to train 20 hours a week for competitive dance. Now, even running errands can leave her short of breath, Kaiser Health News’s Carmen Heredia Rodriguez reported.
Her downturn began after contracting COVID-19 last summer, a condition from which she still hasn’t seemed to recover. Doctors have diagnosed her with chronic inflammatory lung disease, a condition researchers say is “considered a disease of the elderly” and is usually caused by smoking.
While young people tend to fare well if exposed to the coronavirus, some do get seriously ill, and fewer die. And others, like DePue, are among a growing pool of so-called long haulers, or COVID-19 survivors who continue to battle wide-ranging symptoms, including fatigue, mental fog, severe body aches, heart palpitations, and even delirium.
Health professionals don’t know exactly why these symptoms develop, or why some people with COVID-19 recover quickly and others are unwittingly it for the long haul.
COPD gets progressively worse over time
COPD is an incurable, progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe. People with it can experience wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, respiratory infections, and fatigue due to lung damage.
It’s unusual in children because their lungs haven’t had the time to be damaged to that extent; typically, kids with COPD symptoms have asthma or cystic fibrosis, not COPD.
But DePue’s case suggests COVID-19 may accelerate lung damage in some kids, as it does in some adults with the virus. One imaging study of people who’d died from COVID-19 found “persistent and extensive lung damage,” helping doctors better understand long haulers, Reuters reported.
“The findings indicate that COVID-19 is not simply a disease caused by the death of virus-infected cells, but is likely the consequence of these abnormal cells persisting for long periods inside the lungs,” Mauro Giacca, a professor at King’s College London who co-led the work, said.
Severe illness is rare among children, but more data is needed
As of February 25, nearly 3.17 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report out of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That’s 13.1% of the total cases among states who report by age.
Most have no or mild symptoms, but around 2,000 have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a potentially deadly issue involving a high fever and inflammation. Black and Hispanic kids represent most cases of serious illness or death from COVID-19.
Enough of a subset of children have developed long-hauler complications that some hospitals are erecting clinics to help manage their symptoms and rule out other potential causes, Rodriguez reported. Clinics and “bootcamps” for adult long-haulers are opening up too.
In both cases, patients and clinicians have more questions than answers.
“There is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children,” the AAP and CHA report writes, “including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”