When To Test

The Risks of Reinfection

You’ve probably had COVID at least once already. But you can definitely get it again — and believe us, you don’t want to.

Kim Noble
Sick woman sitting on couch, wrapped in a blanket

At least 82% of Americans have experienced COVID, so most cases are now people getting it for a second time, or perhaps even a third. After their first infection, especially if symptoms were mild, some people assume another one will be relatively harmless. And supporting that belief, many people experienced milder symptoms with the newer variants (like Omicron and XBB 1.5/Kraken) than with the original virus or Delta variant.

But we’re discovering that multiple infections may be riskier than we think. And the symptoms you experience while isolating during those 5-10 days aren’t the only ones you need to worry about.

A study published in November 2022 revealed that people who got COVID twice were more likely to have significant health problems than people who only had COVID once. And while their chances of getting a severe illness were highest right after they got sick, that risk didn’t disappear right away — it lasted at a lower level for at least the next six months.

What kinds of sickness are we talking about? The study found that people with COVID-19 reinfections were twice as likely to die and three times more likely to be hospitalized than those who weren’t reinfected. People with repeat infections were 3.5 times more likely to develop lung problems, three times more likely to suffer heart conditions, and 1.6 times more likely to experience brain conditions than patients who had been infected with the virus only once. Granted, most of the people in this study were older men. But as the authors of the study point out, the results suggest that every time you get reinfected, the risk rises a bit. So no matter how many times you’ve already had COVID, it’s better to avoid getting it again.

Even if a second COVID infection gives you milder symptoms at first, it could still cause more lasting effects to your body. An L.A. Times article about reinfection puts it like this: Your first infection is like an earthquake. A second and third infection are like the aftershocks. While those aftershocks might be milder than the original earthquake, they can still add more damage. (And the analogy also holds that, in some cases, an aftershock could actually be worse than the original quake.)

If you’ve already been affected by Long COVID, reinfection drastically increases the chance that Long COVID symptoms will reoccur or get worse. One survey found that 60% of people who were in recovery or remission from Long COVID saw their symptoms come back when they got infected again. And in those who still had Long COVID when they were reinfected, 80% saw their symptoms worsen.

So What Do We Do?

Don’t get COVID again. I know it’s easier said than done, but we know how to reduce our risk. Keep up with your boosters, especially if you’re over 65 years old. Wear a high-quality mask in crowded indoor settings, especially those with poor ventilation. And to the degree that you’re able, stay away from sick people. (And if you’re sick yourself, stay home!)

Another plug for vaccination. Even if you still get COVID, studies have found that vaccines reduce the risk of severe illness. And a number of studies have also found that being vaccinated reduces the risk of Long COVID. Reduce your risk before reinfection increases it.

Meanwhile, scientists will keep working on the problem. There is still work being done on new vaccines, and there is hope for nasal sprays that could prevent the spread. But new scientific breakthroughs like these will only work if we do our part and get the shots or use the medication.