How long COVID weakens the body

In today’s newsletter, we show you the world’s largest Jurassic pterosaur, examine COVID's effects on the reproduction system, get a glimpse of Africa’s oldest tree, ... and explore the effects of masks on kids.

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Science newsletter that was sent out on February 23, 2022. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Victoria JaggardSCIENCE Executive Editor

A common approach to viral infections follows the aphorism “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.” This is only somewhat accurate. In plenty of cases, if you get sick and then recover, your body goes back to its usual functions with the added bonus of natural immunity. But experts and patients have known for a while that some viruses, bacteria, and parasites take a heavier toll: Damage to organs and tissues leaves the body weaker long after the microbial invader is gone, creating chronic conditions. 

Now, two years into a devastating pandemic, COVID-19 is bringing this message home in a big way. 

Estimates for the number of people who develop long COVID—a suite of lingering symptoms—range from 10 percent to as high as 50 percent of cases. More than 428 million cases have been reported, which means tens of millions of people around the world continue to wrestle with the viral aftermath. The conditions range from frustrating to downright debilitating. People are reporting damage to not only smell and taste, but to all five senses. Others have long-lasting heart issues, fatigue, shortness of breath, and brain fog. Early research suggests that COVID-19 infection can cause more serious neurological damage akin to dementia. Worryingly, long COVID affects people who had only mild reactions to the virus, including many kids

Men and women are experiencing problems with reproductive health. As Sharon Guynup reports, the latest NIH research shows that pregnant people who got COVID-19 are 40 percent more likely than the uninfected to have serious complications, including miscarriages and stillbirths. Thousands of other women are reporting severe disruptions to their menstrual cycles. (Pictured above, a woman giving birth at home in December rather than risking infection in a hospital; below, a birthing center moved outside for patient safety.)

The long-term mental health consequences of isolation and grief also bear considering, but as more people venture back into the world, it’s all the more important to understand the risks involved and keep mitigation measures in the mix: wear a mask, get vaccinated, pay attention to ventilation. 

“There's just no way to predict which version of COVID that you'll get,” says long COVID patient Lisa O’Brien. “You might not die, but you might not go back to living the life that you planned to live.” 

Read our latest story here

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STORIES WE’RE FOLLOWING

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Biggest fossil of its kind: It’s neither a bird nor a plane but the largest flying reptile. Scientists have new details of this stunning fossil, discovered on the coastline of Scotland’s Isle of Skye in 2017. This new genus of pterosaur (illustrated above) had a wingspan of more than 8.2 feet and was spectacularly well preserved, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko reports, noting that portions of the skull, limb bones, tail, ribs, and vertebrae were still intact. “I would say it’s, by far, the most important thing we’ve ever found in any of my trips—and it’s certainly the most stressful one to collect,” says paleontologist and Nat Geo Explorer Steve Brusatte.

A FOSSIL TO FOLLOW

THE NIGHT SKIES

Celestial cluster hunt: Without the moon in the evening skies this week, why not chase down a bright open star cluster? Bright star cluster Messier 41 includes about a hundred stars bright enough to be seen by the naked eye. Start your hunt at Orion’s belt. Extend a line from those three stars in the famed constellation to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. About the size of four full-moon disks to the south sits Messier 41. Then, at dawn on Sunday, look southwest to catch the crescent moon forming a line with Venus and Mars. The next morning, see the moon with Mercury and Saturn closer to the horizon. Want more about moons? Check out this article on the moons in our solar system. — Andrew Fazekas

Related: The secrets of the solar system

AN ATLAS OF MOONS

IN A FEW WORDS

THE LAST GLIMPSE

Tree of life: The majestic baobab, Africa’s oldest tree, can hold 32,000 gallons of water in its trunk to endure drought. The tree’s fruit, thick trunk, and sparse branches are used for food and medicine. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the oldest, largest baobabs are dying. Scientists suspect hotter, drier climate conditions. “I think we take for granted that these giant trees have no problem,” says Nat Geo Explorer Henry Ndangalasi. In this image from Botswana (above), which has more than 700,000 likes on our Instagram page, Nat Geo Explorer Mattias Klum captures a baobab with branches seeming to reach toward the Milky Way.

SEE AFRICA'S OLDEST TREES 

A final note: Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to our query about whether microdoses of psychedelic drugs could boost mental health. Some of you have tried them, others are open to the idea, another contingent wants more testing and regulation of what they put in their body, and a fourth group just says no. We’ll be following this story in the months to come. 

This newsletter has been curated and edited by Monica Williams, David Beard, and Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. 

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