Long Covid: the symptoms and who is most at risk
New study finds that seven in ten patients hospitalised with the condition still affected five months later
While vaccine rollouts are raising hopes of an end to the coronavirus pandemic, doctors worldwide are facing a new challenge: how to treat millions of people battling what has become known as “long Covid”.
What is long Covid?
Newly published research suggests that up to 70% of patients hospitalised with Covid continue to have symptoms ranging from the physical to the neurological for at least five months after being released from care.
The study by experts from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the University of Leicester - which has not yet been peer reviewed - also found that one in five patients with long Covid reach the threshold for being defined as having a “new disability”.
A separate joint research project between the EU and UK last year that analysed screening results from 200 “low-risk” long Covid patients - “those who are relatively young and without any major underlying health complaints” - found that almost 70% had signs of “impairments in one or more organs, including the heart, lungs, liver and pancreas”, as The Guardian reported at the time.
“The good news is that the impairment is mild, but even with a conservative lens, there is some impairment, and in 25% of people it affects two or more organs,” said study co-author Amitava Banerjee, a cardiologist and associate professor of clinical data science at University College London.
What are the main symptoms?
According to NHS, symptoms of long Covid can include:
- extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- shortness of breath
- chest pain or tightness
- problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- heart palpitations
- pins and needles
- joint pain
- depression and anxiety
- tinnitus, earaches
- feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
- a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
Who is at risk?
- Covid patients who experienced more than five symptoms during the first week of infection
- White women aged between 40 and 60 who have at least two long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, lung or heart disease
- People with a higher than average BMI
- People who suffer from asthma
How long does recovery take?
Researchers from King’s College London have found that while most Covid patients recover within 11 days, some take considerably longer. An analysis of data on 4,182 patients who logged their symptoms into a Covid Symptom Study app revealed that:
- One in seven (13%) of the patients was ill for at least four weeks
- One in 20 (4.5%) was ill for at least eight weeks
- One in 50 (2.3%) was ill for at least 12 weeks
The study authors add that these are “conservative” estimates, which “may underestimate the extent of long Covid”.
How is it treated?
Anyone who thinks they may be suffering from the symptoms of long Covid should contact their GP.
New clinical guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was put in place by NHS England last year to allow doctors to diagnose long Covid more easily and to provide personalised treatment plans. A total of £10m has also been invested to create a network of specialist long Covid clinics across the country that provide “joined-up care” for the range of physical, neurological and mental-health symptoms associated with the condition. In a statement in December, NHS England said that “the new centres bring together doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to offer both physical and psychological assessments and refer patients to the right treatment and rehabilitation services”. The health service has also launched a Your Covid Recovery website where patients can get can tailored recovery programmes to help manage symptoms and track recovery progress.