What is Long COVID and who is most at risk?

Cristian Halati
November 25, 2020

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, scientists and researchers continue to learn more about the disease, painting a picture that seems undoubtedly more complex than initially anticipated.  

The term ‘Long COVID’ or ‘Long-Haul COVID’ is now receiving increasing amounts of attention – as scientists uncover that a significant proportion of sufferers continue to struggle with a complex set of symptoms for weeks and months after their initial diagnosis, with fatigue being the most commonly reported.

As some patients may not even be aware of their situation or may struggle to have their symptoms recognised, increasing awareness of ‘Long COVID’ is important.  

What is Long COVID?

Most people that suffer from COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms and take between 2 to 6 weeks to fully recover.

For some, however, the road to recovery takes far longer.

Prolonged symptoms of COVID-19 may linger and recur for months after the initial diagnosis, and some may face potentially life-altering complications. This is the unfortunate reality faced by up to 10% of patients that have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, based on the findings of the UK COVID symptom study.  

This is commonly referred to as ‘Long COVID’, with sufferers often referred to as ‘long-haulers’. Some research bodies have defined “post-acute COVID-19” as extending beyond three weeks from the onset of the first symptoms, and “chronic COVID-19” as extending beyond 12 weeks.  

‘Long COVID’ seems to defy common expectations of illness, as it appears that it can manifest even in people that experience a ‘mild version’ of the illness.

What are the symptoms of long COVID?

An increasing number of worldwide of studies are starting to report similar findings.  Long COVID appears to be associated with a plethora of long-term symptoms, such as:

A survey of 1567 ‘long COVID’ patients revealed that 100% of participants reported fatigue, 66% muscle and body aches, 65% shortness of breath, 59% difficulty concentrating and 58% an inability to exercise or be active.  

Symptoms of Long COVID may relapse and remit at any point, changing in duration and intensity.  

Surveys reveal that 100% of long COVID sufferers report struggling with fatigue

Importantly, people that suffer from ‘Long COVID’ do not appear to be infectious during this time.  

The post-COVID clinical outcome is so complex that some studies have even suggested that ongoing COVID may in fact be comprised of several different syndromes such as post-intensive care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome and long-term COVID-syndrome. What’s more, it is also suggested that these syndromes may be experienced simultaneously by some patients.  

Who is more likely to suffer from long COVID?

While we are still in the early stages of understanding the disease, certain factors may contribute to a longer period of recovery.  

A recent analysis based on data from over 4000 cases of COVID-19 from patients that logged their symptoms via the COVID Symptom Study app revealed that the factors that contribute to higher risks of long COVID are:

If you experience prolonged symptoms as described prior to a diagnosis, or even a suspected but not formally diagnosed illness, speak to your GP or visit https://yourcovidrecovery.nhs.uk/.  

The NHS has recently announced a plan to tackle long COVID, investing £10 million to implement and run long COVID clinics in every area of England.

An awareness video has also been released by the Department of Health and Social Care.  

Sources:

  1. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.19.20214494v1.full
  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3026
  1. https://www.nihr.ac.uk/news/living-with-covid-nihr-publishes-dynamic-themed-review-into-ongoing-covid/25891
  1. https://dig.abclocal.go.com/wls/documents/2020/072720-wls-covid-symptom-study-doc.pdf

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