Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become clear that Covid infections range in severity greatly, depending on who gets sick. Covid can be fatal for some, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Others either recover from the infection after a few weeks, or clear the virus without ever showing symptoms at all. There also exists a subset of people for whom healing completely from a Covid infection is frustratingly slow; even seemingly impossible. These people have termed themselves “Covid long-haulers.”
What is Long Covid?
Covid long-haulers (also known as people experiencing “long Covid”) and the researchers looking to understand their condition now define it as a Covid infection causing a variety of symptoms that persist for 28 days or more after diagnosis, whether that diagnosis was confirmed by laboratory tests or clinically. (As many Covid long-haulers caught the virus early in the pandemic before testing was widely available, many only received a clinical diagnosis.) Groups of people suffering with long Covid have organized themselves online for mutual support from the beginning of the pandemic. They have been instrumental in helping doctors and scientists begin to understand, accept, and research treatment. Clinically, long Covid is now known as “Post-acute sequelae of COVID-19,” or PASC.
What Are the Symptoms of Long Covid?
Symptoms of long Covid are widely varied. Most long-haulers complain of fatigue — some to the degree that work and daily life are quite compromised or even put completely on hold. Long Covid symptoms frequently reported include:
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Memory loss, often severe
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart rate
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Muscle weakness
- Light sensitivity
- Exercise intolerance
- Gastro-intestinal issues
Many patients report that stress, exercise or mental exertion worsens symptoms, even causing relapse. Some patients suffer scarring damage or other abnormalities in certain organs, especially the lungs — though these effects are more common in those whose acute illnesses were severe.
What Percentage of People Who Get Covid Will Develop into Long Haulers?
As Covid 19 is still a relatively new phenomenon, there’s a lot we don’t yet understand. We can’t be sure yet what percentage of people who suffer a Covid infection will become long haulers, though we do have some data.
A 2020 study out of China published in The Lancet looked at 1,733 Covid patients who had been discharged from Jin Yin-tan hospital after treatment. The study reports that as much as 75% of people who suffered a Covid infection still complained of symptoms after six months. The patients primarily suffer symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, and anxiety or depression. The study also confirmed that patients whose acute illnesses were severe were more at risk for impaired lung capacity and abnormal chest imaging.
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It’s also clear that even patients whose infections were never severe or required hospitalization are still at risk for developing long term symptoms. The Patient-Led Research for COVID-19 and University College London, England, completed a survey of 3,762 individuals from 56 countries who identified as experiencing long Covid. The survey found that more than half of the responding participants had never been hospitalized for Covid 19. Many had relatively mild cases of Covid initially and did not have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or obesity, that are known to make people more susceptible to the disease.
What Causes Long Covid?
As with many chronic illnesses, scientists are unclear as to the underlying cause. Root causes of long Covid may be complex, and may vary for different people. However, it does seem that, as is the case with some other chronic illnesses, persistent immune dysfunction and ensuing high levels of inflammation may be at the heart of lasting symptoms from a Covid infection. As scientists look deeper into cases of long Covid, we’ll hopefully learn more.
Does Long Covid Affect Any Particular Age Range, Ethnicity, etc. More Than Others?
Again, more data is needed to understand who is most likely to suffer from symptoms of long Covid. However, of the 3,762 individuals who responded to the Patient-Led Research for COVID-19 survey in England, most were white women between the ages of 30 and 60, living in the United States. However, this may reflect access to the survey instead of being an accurate representation of susceptibility to long Covid. Over time, more data will emerge to suggest who may be most at risk as we get a better picture of this illness.
Current Research into Long Covid
Luckily for patients, there is a lot of scientific interest around long Covid. The National Institute for Humanities in the United States is conducting research to better understand the condition, as is the National Health Service in England. Johns Hopkins has published multiple studies concerning the coronavirus in general and is currently conducting a study looking at the long-term outlook for people who have had a Covid infection. As these and other studies are completed, we’ll hopefully develop a much deeper understanding of root causes and possible treatments for those patients suffering.
Seemingly healthy people are at risk for developing long Covid —a condition in which symptoms of Covid 19 take more than four weeks to resolve. Symptoms of long Covid are diverse, in some cases severely impacting quality of life. Research into long Covid is evolving, and as time goes on, we’ll develop a clearer picture of what causes it, who is most at risk, and what treatments may help.
In the meantime, as we all wait for comprehensive vaccinations to lessen infection rates, it pays to be careful! Wear your mask in public, and stay distanced from those not in your immediate family. As a world community, we face the project of overcoming this global pandemic together. We can each do our part by staying safe.