As many as a fifth of people who contract Covid-19 are likely to suffer symptoms for eight weeks or more – so-called ‘long Covid – with women aged between 50 and 60 at greatest risk of developing long-term, and potentially debilitating, after-effects from the virus, a study has argued.
They found that older people, women and those with a greater number of different symptoms in the first week of their illness were more likely to develop long Covid. From this, they developed a model to predict who is most at risk of long Covid.
They also studied the experiences of people living with long Covid, and identifies two main symptom groupings.
One was dominated by respiratory symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath, as well as fatigue and headaches, and the second form of the condition was “clearly multi-system”, they argued, affecting many parts of the body, including the brain, gut and heart.
Long Covid sufferers reported heart symptoms, such as palpitations or fast heartbeat, as well as pins and needles or numbness, and problems concentrating (“brain fog”).
People with long Covid were also twice as likely to report that their symptoms had come back again after recovering (relapse) compared with those having shorter symptoms from the virus (16% versus 8.4%).
Overall, the team found that, while most people with Covid-19 reported being back to normal in 11 days or less, around one in seven (13.3%) had symptoms lasting for at least four weeks, with around one in 20 (4.5%) staying ill for eight weeks and one in 50 (2.3%) suffering for longer than 12 weeks.
However, the researchers added: “These are conservative estimates, which, because of the strict definitions used, may underestimate the extent of Long-COVID.”
Extrapolating this to the general UK population, the team estimated that around one in seven (14.5%) of people with symptomatic Covid-19 would be ill for at least four weeks, one in 20 (5.1%) for eight weeks and one in 45 (2.2%) for 12 weeks or more.
On average, long Covid affected around 10% of 18-49-year-olds who become unwell with the virus, rising to 22% of over-70s.
Weight also played a role, with people developing long Covid having a slightly higher average BMI than those with short Covid.
Women were 50% more likely to suffer from long Covid than men (14.5% compared with 9.5%), but only in the younger age group.
The researchers 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.
Dr Steves said: “It’s important we use the knowledge we have gained from the first wave in the pandemic to reduce the long-term impact of the second. This should pave the way for trials of early interventions to reduce the long-term effects.”
And Professor Spector added: “As well as worrying about excess deaths, we also need to consider those who will be affected by long Covid if we don’t get the pandemic under control soon. As we wait for a vaccine, it is vital that we all work together to stem the spread of coronavirus via lifestyle changes and more rigorous self-isolating with symptoms or positive tests.”
The latest findings have come as research from the National Institute for Health Research suggested long Covid could be the result of a range of “fluctuating and multisystem” symptoms encompassing organ damage to the lungs and heart, post-viral fatigue and continuing Covid-19 symptoms, among others.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens announced £10m would be set aside for the NHS in England to set up specialist clinics offering sufferers access to physical, cognitive and psychological assessments.