It seems to a lot of teens and adolescents that Covid-19 is an annoying fever and cough for 14 days but few realize the virus’ greater impact on health and wellness. As the pandemic looms, researchers have identified possible long-term health impacts of the coronavirus. Some research even suggests that the virus could affect kids & teens’ brain development. Many scientists have come forward in recent months and it’s something that needs to be discussed. Although it can be an incredibly scary thought as we return to school in under a month, we cannot push new academic research to the back burner.
By now we all know the symptoms of Covid-19. You may have even had your fair share of small coughing fits only to be met by heads turning to stare you down. From what we were originally told, the coronavirus is comparable to the flu, but we’re starting to learn that it’s much more complicated than that. In the past few months, researchers have discovered new symptoms, formed new ideas, and released new research, culminating in the worrisome thought that Covid-19 may have more long-term effects on our bodies, particularly on the brain and in children. Back in February, researchers in Wuhan, started documenting neurological symptoms and noted signs of damage to the brain that might have serious long-term effects.
More than 300 studies from around the world have noticed a prevailing pattern of neurological abnormalities in Covid-19 patients. Have you heard of people now experiencing no sense of smell or taste? What about headaches and tingling sensations that feel like limbs falling asleep? In some extreme cases, the virus can cause an inability to speak, seizures, and even strokes. These aren’t normal respiratory symptoms we’ve seen before, these are neurological symptoms. Researchers are finding that although the virus is classified as respiratory disease, it has been known to cause extreme harm to the liver, heart, kidneys, and every other organ in the human body. Though it's true, 80% of Covid-19 patients shake off the virus quickly, a small percentage has been seen to have symptoms worsen and then die within days due to multi-organ failure. Many of these cases have involved patients with underlying health conditions, but not all of them.
Science has revealed another strange mystery regarding the impact of Covid-19 on our blood. Our blood usually has an “oxygen saturation” level of about 98%; anything under 80% can be seriously fatal. For some reason, many coronavirus patients have been found with oxygen saturation levels below 70% and 60% and yet, they still seem completely cognitively functional. This is very significant because many researchers are starting to believe that the neurological effects of the virus have something to do with the lack of oxygen, otherwise known as oxygen starvation, to the brain. In fact, many researchers suspect that the virus is causing respiratory damage and failure not through the lungs, but through damage to the brain stem. In case you don’t know, the brain stem is basically a command centre that makes sure we’re breathing, even as we sleep or are unconscious in any way. The impacts that the virus can have on the nervous system, although less common than the simple respiratory ones we speak about so often, may have far larger and long lasting effects than we think.
Now that you know the possible long-term physical impacts of Covid-19, we have to talk about the unseen impacts on kids and teenagers. There’s no denying that social distancing and isolation has affected the mental health of children and adolescents. There has been a continuing discourse about the physical and mental effects of the impending return to school on students of all ages and whether returning will yield net positive. Though we may be feeling these effects of staying inside and having life all of a sudden be so strange, are there permanent effects on growing brains of all of this? All of us have been affected by the pandemic differently, some more so than others.
“Stressors” encapsulate various factors influenced by our environment, other people around us, and our own experiences. The main factors during the pandemic include food insecurity, reduced family income, parental stress, and elevated levels of child abuse. These stressors can be biologically embedded into young brains, negatively impact their development, immune systems, and their ability to learn and thrive. The scariest part? These effects may not be immediate but rather resurface in cognitive development and important learning experiences years later. Children and teenagers are facing these stressful times without a stable routine, with schools being closed since March, most summer plans, sports, and camps cancelled, social interaction and development is greatly affected. For teenagers in particular, socialization and peer interaction is a necessity. That is why social deprivation caused by quarantine and isolation is resulting in severe mental health effects and far-reaching consequences. These stressors unique to the pandemic may leave a lasting biological impact as epigenetic changes associated with early childhood can last into adulthood and manifest into physical health problems in the future.
So what now? Now that we’re aware of the long-lasting physical and mental effects of the pandemic, what can we do? Continuing social-distancing measures, being as safe as possible and educating others is the best we can do to combat the pandemic. For students of all ages enduring these stressful times, we have to create safe and useful spaces in schools and within social circles to continue to let children and adolescents thrive. If you feel stressed or are in a situation that you do not know how to handle, please reach out, whether it be to a parent, relative, friend, someone at your school. You can even reach out to us on our resource page or Instagram. There are ways to help yourself and others cope with this pandemic. Remember to wash your hands and stay safe out there.