A study by King's College London has assessed that one in 20 people with COVID-19 is sick for at least eight weeks. The new analysis has estimated that older people, women, and those having more than five different symptoms in the first week of their illness are more likely to develop, for what is now called, 'Long COVID'.
The study noted that this may add up to many hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and millions worldwide. The study, led by Dr. Claire Steves and Professor Tim Spector at King's, focussed on data from 4,182 COVID Symptom Study app users who had been logging their health regularly and tested positive for COVID-19 through swab PCR testing.
What is Long COVID?
This can be simply put as an ongoing illness even after the person recovers from SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 'Long COVID' affects not just patients taking time to recuperate from a stay in intensive care, but also people with comparatively mild infections who can be left with lasting and serious medical conditions.
The research conducted by scientists at King's provided insight into "this poorly understood phenomenon" as well as the experiences of people living with Long COVID, and identified "two main symptom groupings".
First one was dominated by respiratory symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, cough, and shortness of breath. Second form was multi-system, affecting several parts of the human body, comprising the heart, gut, and brain.
The study further underscored that 'Long COVID' sufferers "more commonly reported heart symptoms such as palpitations or fast heartbeat, as well as pins and needles or numbness, and problems concentrating (brain fog)."
The analysis further found that people with 'Long COVID' were also twice as likely to report that their symptoms had come back again after recovering compared with those having 'Short COVID' (16% vs 8.4%).
Overall, the team of researchers found that while most people with COVID-19 reported being back to normal in 11 days or less, around one in seven (13.3% or 558 users) had COVID-19 symptoms for at least four weeks, with around one in 20 (4.5% or 189 users) staying ill for eight weeks and one in 50 (2.3% or 95 users) suffering for longer than 12 weeks.
Who does 'Long COVID' affect?
The study revealed that 'Long COVID' affects around 10% of 18-49-year olds who become unwell with COVID-19, rising to 22% of over 70s.
It suggested that weight also plays a role, with people developing Long COVID having a slightly higher average BMI (body mass index) than those with short COVID.
The analysis further showed that women were 50% more likely to suffer from Long COVID than men, but only in the younger age group. The scientists also found that people with asthma were more likely to develop Long COVID, although there were no clear links to any other underlying health conditions.
A spate of other preliminary studies have also pinpointed early indications that a coronavirus patient won't recover right away.
Other findings: -
In an initial report about 'Long COVID', Britain's National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) said one common theme among ongoing COVID patients - some of whom are seven months or more into their illness - is that symptoms appear in one physiological area, such as the heart or lungs, only to abate and then arise again in a different area.
"This review highlights the detrimental physical and psychological impact that ongoing COVID is having on many people's lives," said Dr. Elaine Maxwell, who led the report.
Many thousands of people worldwide have linked up on social media platforms and online forums to share their experiences of ongoing COVID-19 symptoms. Some call themselves "long haulers" while others have named their condition 'Long COVID'.
Not much known
Maxwell, who presented the findings of the 'Living with COVID' report in an online media briefing, said health services are already struggling "to manage these new and fluctuating patterns of symptoms and problems".
She and her co-authors urged patients and doctors to log and track symptoms so that health researchers can learn more about the condition and how to ease it as swiftly as possible.
"Despite the uncertainties, people need help now," she said adding that "we need to collect more data."
Cyclical in nature
For this initial report, Maxwell's team held a focus group with 14 members of a Facebook group called Long COVID. Their testimony suggested ongoing COVID could be cyclical, Maxwell said, with symptoms fluctuating in severity and moving around the body, including around the respiratory system, the brain, cardiovascular system and heart, the kidneys, the gut, the liver, and the skin.
"There are powerful stories that ongoing COVID symptoms are experienced by people of all ages, and people from all backgrounds," the report said.
Maxwell said an urgent priority was to establish a working diagnosis recognised by healthcare services, employers, and government agencies to help patients get support.
"While this is a new disease and we are learning more about its impact..., services will need to be better equipped to support people with ongoing COVID, as emerging evidence is showing there are significant psychological and social impacts that will have long term consequences," the report stated.