Can You Get Long COVID If You've Been Vaccinated?

It's still possible for fully vaccinated individuals to develop long COVID, though the risk is notably reduced. Here's how you can help protect yourself.

Woman with face mask getting vaccinated in hospital, coronavirus and vaccination concept
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With nearly 65% of the American public now fully vaccinated, the country appears to be entering a new chapter in its battle with COVID-19. Mask mandates are being lifted across the country and social distancing rules are being eased.

But as has become clear, even after being vaccinated it is still entirely possible to get COVID-19 via a breakthrough infection. And more recently, it has also become apparent that it is possible to get long COVID after having been vaccinated, or even after being boosted—though your chances are notably reduced.

"We do not know exact numbers yet, but there is some encouraging data to suggest that vaccination reduces the likelihood of long COVID if you have a breakthrough infection," Linda Geng, MD, PhD, co-director of the Stanford Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome Clinic and clinical assistant professor in medicine, primary care and population at Stanford University, told Health.com.

A comprehensive review conducted by the U.K. Health Security Agency, which encompassed data from 15 U.K. and international studies, examined the question of whether being vaccinated for COVID-19 before infection protected patients from long COVID symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and brain fog.

Though study of this issue is ongoing and far more research will need to be done, the U.K. agency's review indicates that patients who received one or two doses of the vaccine were less likely to develop long COVID symptoms if they became infected. And in those cases when a patient did develop long COVID, the symptoms subsided much more quickly.

Here's a closer look at the the prevalence and impacts of long COVID after being vaccinated.

How Common Is Long COVID Among Vaccinated Individuals?

The growing body of data surrounding the occurrence of long COVID among vaccinated individuals seems to bode well for the efficacy of vaccination.

Specifically, six of eight studies that assessed the effectiveness of vaccination before COVID-19 infection suggested that vaccinated cases (patients who had one or two doses of the vaccine) were less likely to develop symptoms of long COVID following infection in the short term (four weeks after infection), medium-term (12 to 20 weeks after infection) and long term (six months after infection), according to the review conducted by the U.K. Health Security Agency.

Long COVID, also known as post-COVID conditions or long-haul COVID, typically includes having persistent symptoms of COVID-19, usually for weeks but sometimes even for months or years. These symptoms often include fatigue, shortness of breath, and a persistent cough.

The U.K. Health Security Agency study review also showed that fully vaccinated younger adults (18 to 59 years) were much less likely to have long COVID symptoms (lasting 28 days or longer) than unvaccinated adults of the same age range.

"Although a small percentage of vaccinated people experience long COVID, the vast majority of people with long COVID are unvaccinated," Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, director and founding dean at the University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health told Health.com. "It is important to remember that vaccines are overall effective at reducing COVID infection, and therefore, long COVID by not getting COVID in the first place."

Additionally, the U.K. review of studies points to other beneficial outcomes among vaccinated patients with regard to long COVID and its impacts. For instance, individuals who received two doses of a vaccine and still developed long COVID, ultimately experienced the associated symptoms for a shorter period time.

And even among the unvaccinated, there may be some positive news with regard to long COVID and vaccinations. The U.K. review of studies found that people who get COVID and then subsequently experience symptoms of long COVID, do better if they subsequently get vaccinated.

Yet another study of long COVID, this one conducted by Israel-based researchers, also suggests that vaccinated people are less likely to report long COVID symptoms compared to unvaccinated people when infected.

The study included 951 infected and 2437 uninfected individuals. And of the infected, 637 or 67% were vaccinated. The study's findings were that participants who received two doses of the vaccine were less likely than unvaccinated individuals to report any of the symptoms typically associated with long COVID, such as fatigue, headache, weakness, and muscle pains.

The report's conclusion also draws a connection between vaccination and reduced incidence overall of long COVID stating that "in addition to reducing the risk of acute illness, COVID-19 vaccination may have a protective effect against long COVID."

What Research Is Being Conducted on Long COVID?

Though a handful of studies have already been published in an effort to shed light on long COVID and its ramifications among the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the research is very much still ongoing.

One of the biggest studies underway in the U.S. is the NIH-sponsored RECOVER initiative, which is a nationwide research study investigating the long-term effects of COVID-19, Dr. Geng said. The goals of the study are to better understand the rate, subtypes, risk factors, and pathophysiology of long COVID, as well as ways to treat and prevent the syndrome.

As part of this significant undertaking, several groups, and organizations are working together through a RECOVER Consortium to launch multiple studies that will include diverse groups of patients, caregivers, clinicians, community leaders and scientists from across the nation. Stanford Medicine, for instance, one of 30 research teams participating in the NIH-funded study, received $15 million just for its portion of the research effort and will use that money to study 900 COVID-19 survivors, including those experiencing lingering symptoms of initial COVID-19 infections, over a four year period.

"Long COVID is a major public health crisis," Dr. Geng said. "Resources and multidisciplinary teamwork are required to tackle this challenging and complex problem. We should remain vigilant about long COVID in vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections and continue to support clinical care and research in this area."

How to Protect Against Long COVID

A recently published report in the journal Cell, identified a handful of factors that may help to predict which people are likely to go on to develop long COVID. The analysis lists various potential risk factors of long COVID including:

  • The presence and level of autoantibodies (which are antibodies that attack the body's own healthy tissues)
  • Epstein-Barr virus in the blood
  • Viral load (meaning the amount of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in the blood)
  • Pre-existing type 2 diabetes.

While being aware of conditions that might cause you to be pre-disposed to long COVID is important, experts continue to point out that getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent a COVID infection in the first place.

"More studies are needed in diverse populations with long-term follow-up to better understand the effect vaccines have on long COVID," Dr. Geng said, adding: "It is important to remember that vaccines are overall effective at reducing COVID infection, and therefore, [at reducing] long COVID, by not getting COVID in the first place."

Staying up to date with vaccine boosters and making good judgment calls about masking and social distancing are also important steps to prevent COVID-19, said Boden-Albala.

In order to protect yourself and others from long COVID, Boden-Albala said people must evaluate their risk wherever they go.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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