COVID-19 Infection Increases Risk of Autoimmune Diseases by up to 30 Percent: Study

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Vaccination may reduce the risk, according to the new study.

Surviving COVID-19 may leave you at heightened risk of developing debilitating autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus for up to a year after infection, according to new research.

However, the study also found that vaccinating against the virus could significantly lower your chances of developing these potentially life-altering inflammatory conditions.

COVID-19 Infection Severity Plays a Big Role

The study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, analyzed national claims data from over 10 million Korean and 12 million Japanese patients aged 20 and above diagnosed with COVID-19 between January 2020 and December 2021. The dominant strains were the wild-type virus and the delta variant during this period. COVID-19 patients were compared with matched flu patients and uninfected controls.

A little less than 4 percent of Korean participants had a history of COVID-19, and about 1 percent had a history of flu. Among Japanese participants, about 8 percent had been infected with COVID-19, and slightly less than 1 percent had been infected with flu.

Researchers found that COVID-19 patients had a 25 percent to 30 percent increased risk of new-onset autoimmune rheumatic diseases (AIRDs) 30 days after infection compared to uninfected individuals.

More severe COVID-19 was linked to a greater risk of new-onset, untreated, and treated AIRD, with both wild-type and delta variants associated with AIRD risk. The risk of new-onset AIRD seemed to decline over time and trailed off after the first year.

COVID-19 infection is associated with numerous autoimmune disorders, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internist specializing in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, told The Epoch Times. “For example, there is a marked increase in hyperthyroidism after COVID caused by autoimmune attack on the thyroid glands,” he said. With the immune system already on high alert from the virus and “having trouble shutting down,” it is not surprising that the body’s own tissues will often become collateral damage, he noted.

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“So this new study simply confirms what is already expected,” Dr. Teitelbaum added.

Vaccines Reduce Autoimmune Risk, but Only in Mild Cases

The findings also suggest that COVID-19 vaccination reduced the rate of AIRDs among patients who received one to two or more doses. This reduced risk was observed whether the vaccine used was mRNA-based or viral-vector type.

However, the reduced AIRD risk was only linked to patients with mild COVID-19 infection, not those with moderate or severe infection.

This is noteworthy, given growing evidence suggesting that COVID-19 vaccination could cause new-onset autoimmune diseases, including autoimmune glomerulonephritis, autoimmune hepatitis, and AIRDs.

AIRDs Increase Risk of Other Severe Conditions

AIRDs involve inflammation of the joints or connective tissue caused by attacks from the body’s immune system. These diseases can affect multiple organs and systems, leading to a wide range of symptoms and complications.

Some common AIRDs include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects joints, causing inflammation, pain, stiffness, and swelling. Untreated RA can lead to joint damage, deformities, disability, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and lung problems over time.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): SLE is a systemic autoimmune disease affecting various organs and tissues like skin, joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, and brain. Symptoms may include fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, fever, and organ inflammation. Complications involve kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, and increased infection susceptibility.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis (AS): AS primarily affects the spine and sacroiliac joints, causing inflammation and eventual vertebrae fusion, leading to spinal stiffness and limited mobility. It can also impact other joints, eyes, and organs. Complications may include spinal deformities, eye inflammation, and cardiovascular problems.
  • Psoriatic arthritis (PsA): PsA is an autoimmune condition with joint inflammation and skin lesions (psoriasis). In addition to joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, PsA can cause nail changes, eye inflammation, and tendon inflammation (enthesitis). Complications could include diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Sjögren’s syndrome: Sjögren’s syndrome primarily affects moisture-producing glands, leading to dry eyes and mouth. However, it can also cause systemic issues like joint pain, fatigue, and organ involvement of the kidneys, lungs, or nervous system. It increases the risk of lymphoma and other autoimmune diseases.
  • Systemic sclerosis (scleroderma): Scleroderma is characterized by excessive collagen production, causing thickening and hardening of skin and connective tissues. It can also affect internal organs like the lungs, heart, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract. Complications may include gastrointestinal bleeding, lung and heart problems, and bowel obstruction.

Inexpensive Treatment Available but Ignored: Expert

AIRDs significantly impact quality of life and require long-term management with medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications. Regular monitoring and comprehensive care from health care professionals are essential for managing these conditions and minimizing health risks.

However, effective yet inexpensive treatments for these conditions are largely ignored, Dr. Teitelbaum said.

Low-dose naltrexone, costing less than $1 a day, has been shown to help chronic pain or autoimmune conditions, he added. Additionally, highly absorbed curcumin and Boswellia serrata, found in curcumin, were proven as effective as Celebrex in treating rheumatic arthritis in a head-to-head study, he noted.

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