After experiencing a COVID-19 infection or receiving the vaccine, some individuals may encounter reactivated and recurring infections, including herpes, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), urinary tract infections (UTIs), and even COVID-19 itself. Recent studies suggest that this phenomenon may be connected to lymphopenia, a condition characterized by low levels of lymphocytes.
Lymphocytes are a crucial group of immune cells, including natural killer cells, that play a vital role in eliminating cancerous and infected cells. The body’s last line of defense, B and T cells, are also types of lymphocytes.
Dr. Keith Berkowitz, an internal medicine physician, has treated over 200 long-COVID and post-vaccine patients. He has observed that many of his patients exhibit low T-cell counts, a significant component of the immune system. Typically, immune cell counts return to baseline after an infection, but in these cases, persistent suppression, possibly related to T-cell activity, is observed.
Persistent lymphopenia is a key feature of immune deficiency, making individuals vulnerable to opportunistic infections like reactivated viruses and bacterial infections like UTIs. Dr. Berkowitz noted that several of his female patients with low T-cell counts also reported persistent UTIs. While UTIs are more common in older women, younger and middle-aged women were also affected, indicating potential immune deficiencies.
Studies have also indicated that reactivated viral infections such as EBV and herpes are prevalent. It can be challenging to differentiate whether the symptoms observed in long-COVID and post-vaccine patients are a result of the original COVID-19 infection, the vaccine, or the persistent viral infection.
Common UTI symptoms include incontinence, increased frequency of urination, pain during urination, and other urinary irregularities. Psychiatrist Dr. Amanda McDonald, who has treated numerous long-COVID and post-vaccine patients, has noted that incontinence is a prevalent issue among patients reporting post-vaccine symptoms.
The exact reason for the occurrence of lymphopenia after a COVID-19 infection or vaccination remains uncertain. However, psychiatrist Dr. Adonis Sfera, who has conducted several studies on COVID-19, proposes that both the virus and its spike protein may have the ability to bind to and destroy lymphocytes, leading to lymphopenia. These interactions occur with receptors like ACE-2, CD4, and CD8 found on the surfaces of T cells.
Apart from COVID-19, lymphopenia is a common occurrence during and after infections like HIV, influenza, and various bacterial infections. Vaccines, including those for COVID-19 and the flu, can induce a temporary state of lymphopenia after administration.
Dr. Sfera believes that the persistent lymphopenia observed in long-COVID and post-vaccine patients suggests that the virus or its remnants may still be present in the body. The duration of this persistence is unknown, but research has shown that spike proteins can remain in immune cells for up to 15 months in long-COVID patients. Another study found that spike proteins from the vaccine can persist for six months.
COVID-19 and HIV share similarities in causing lymphopenia in T cells and activating human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). HERVs are human genes believed to have originated from viral infections and make up 8 percent of the human genome. In the context of COVID-19, activated HERVs are associated with severe disease and lymphopenia.
Some studies have suggested a possible preferential decrease in T helper cells, which are crucial in immune system regulation, after COVID-19 infection. With a reduction in T helper cells, the immune system may become hyperinflammatory and self-damaging. This may explain the lymphopenic yet hyperinflammatory states observed in patients in the early stages of the pandemic.
Persistent lymphopenia not only leads to immune deficiency but also increases the risk of immune exhaustion, where immune cells no longer respond effectively to a virus or its remnants. Some studies propose that this may be occurring in long-COVID patients and those receiving repeated vaccinations against the virus.
Addressing the underlying condition causing lymphopenia is typically the first step in restoring lymphocyte counts to normal. Reactivated and recurrent viruses can prolong the lymphopenic state, diverting the body’s attention toward fighting the infection. Nutritional deficiencies, such as zinc, folate, and vitamin B-12, can contribute to lymphopenia, while elevated iron levels may increase the risk of infection.
Dr. Berkowitz has observed that many of his patients with low T-cell counts also have an overactive nervous system. Calming the nervous system through techniques like intravenous hydration therapy and rest-inducing supplements has led to natural recovery of the immune system, with T-cell levels returning to normal.
N-acetylcysteine, a precursor to the amino acid glutathione, can help regulate the immune system and encourage lymphocyte proliferation. For individuals with severe lymphopenia, immunoglobulin shots may be administered to provide some immunity. Additionally, injections with proteins that promote immune cell growth can help increase lymphocyte numbers.