The more time that passes, the more we learn about the virus that is COVID-19. As The Guardian recently pointed out at the beginning of the pandemic, the world was reassured that this was a respiratory illness that most people would recover from in two to three weeks.
But, it’s becoming clear that this is simply not the case. For some people who have experienced COVID-19, they are struck down with debilitating side effects for months after they have officially “recovered” from the virus itself. This is called “long COVID”.
What are the symptoms of long COVID?
Much like the virus, the symptoms of long COVID can differ between people. According to Reuters, this ongoing illness may not just be one syndrome but possibly up to four different syndromes causing a number of symptoms that affect the whole body as well as the mind.
In a report about long COVID, Britain’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) pinpointed a common theme of those with the illness, which is that symptoms appear in one physiological area (like the heart or lungs) before easing and arising somewhere else.
“We believe that the term long Covid is being used as a catch-all for more than one syndrome, possibly up to four, and that the lack of distinction between these syndromes may explain the challenges people are having in being believed and accessing services,” said Dr Elaine Maxwell, the lead author of the report.
While the majority of long COVID symptoms differ from person to person, one common symptom, according to the BBC, is crippling fatigue. Other symptoms include breathlessness, muscle aches, hearing and eyesight problems as well as the loss of smell and taste, headaches and a persisting cough. The effects on the mind also include depression, anxiety and difficulty concentrating.
What is the lasting impact of long COVID?
Health officials aren’t sure how long these symptoms linger in those who have had COVID-19 but damage to the heart and lungs seems to be the most worrying impact.
A study of 100 patients who had relatively mild symptoms of the virus when infected in March this year, found that 78 of them showed abnormal structural changes to their hearts on an MRI scan. But, according to The Guardian, these changes didn’t necessarily cause symptoms and could dissipate with time. The fact that this virus can physiologically change some organs is still a cause for concern.
Who does long COVID affect?
While much of the research into long COVID is still in its infancy, early estimates suggest 10% of COVID patients experience symptoms for longer than three weeks and around one in 50 will still be unwell in three months, The Guardian has reported.
The NIHR report also found these symptoms present in all ages groups, including children who have had COVID-19. But, unpublished data from the COVID Symptom Study suggests women and older people are bearing the brunt of long COVID.
“Above the age of 18, the risk of symptoms lasting for longer than a month seems to generally increase with age,” said Professor Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London who runs the study.
It’s still early days for many research studies into COVID-19, including how it behaves and the impact it has, but it’s clear the virus leaves a lasting impact for many people and that should be taken into consideration for those living with symptoms months after recovering from the viral infection.