“Is covid-19 like smallpox in that it can lay dormant forever protecting you or reemerge like shingles?”

— Barbara in Tennessee

There are viruses that can essentially hibernate in the body long after a person recovers and then reemerge, triggering the same condition or a new one.

A prime example is chickenpox. The virus that causes it, the varicella-zoster virus, stays dormant — sometimes for years — and can reactivate later, causing a different disease called shingles.

Could something like this occur with the coronavirus? It’s an interesting question. There is currently no evidence to suggest the virus could resurface and make a person sick again or lead to other conditions in the future, but it is an active area of research.

Gastroenterologist Saurabh Mehandru led a team of researchers that found that the virus could be detected in the lining of the intestines up to several months after patients had recovered from covid-19. The researchers published their findings this year in the journals Nature and Gastroenterology.

“There have been instances where people have initially been infected and then had an infection again. But unless we can show — based on science — that it was the same virus, we don’t know if the virus got reactivated or if the person acquired a new infection,” said Mehandru, an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

And it is also not known whether the coronavirus could pop up again and lead to an illness other than covid-19.

“It would be premature to say, without any scientific data, whether there is reemergence of the virus from the body,” Mehandru said, or what such a reemergence would mean.

Besides your question, scientists are studying other hypotheses, such as the idea that viral remnants in certain parts of the body, such as the gut, may be associated with symptoms of long covid, which can include fatigue, headache and “brain fog,” among other things.

“The thrust of the research right now is to see if there is any relationship between patients’ symptoms post-covid and if that can be related to any measurable persistence of the virus within the body,” Mehandru said.

Ultimately, continued research will tell us more.

— Lindsey Bever