When COVID-19 first appeared, doctors knew only that some patients survived and some died. There is growing recognition that many people who survive the coronavirus may experience long-lasting complications. These so-called long haulers feel really bad after COVID-19 for many months (JAMA, online Oct. 5, 2020). This “long COVID” appears to affect a lot more people that originally believed (The Lancet, Jan. 8, 2021).
How Common Is Long COVID?
There are now a number of studies clarifying how often people feel bad after COVID-19 “recovery.” Doctors conducted one of these investigations in Wuhan, where people were infected earliest. We describe their findings below. In addition, we discuss the results of two recent reports, one from Britain and one from the VA in the US.
Lingering COVID-19 Symptoms in Britain:
British researchers tracked nearly 48,000 COVID patients who were discharged from hospitals there (medRxiv, Jan. 15, 2021). About 30% were re-admitted over the next several weeks and 12.3% died. People experienced serious breathing problems, heart attacks, heart failure, arrhythmias, strokes diabetes and chronic kidney disease.
Some US Veterans Also Feel Bad After COVID-19:
A similar study followed more than 2,000 veterans diagnosed with COVID-19 and discharged from 132 VA hospitals (JAMA, Jan. 19, 2021). Within two months of leaving the hospital, 27% of these patients were either readmitted or died. Post-COVID syndrome, as doctors now term these complications, deserves more attention.
Research from Wuhan:
With only about one year of experience with SARS-CoV-2 and its resulting infection, COVID-19, we don’t yet know very much about long term consequences. A study of patients in Wuhan, the Chinese city hit earliest in the pandemic, is sobering.
The research, published in The Lancet (Jan. 8, 2021), followed up on more than 1,700 individuals discharged from hospitals between January and May of last year. All had been hospitalized with COVID-19.
Approximately six months after hospital discharge, more than 60% reported fatigue or muscle weakness. About a quarter were still having trouble sleeping, and nearly that many reported anxiety or depression. Those who had been most severely ill when hospitalized were more likely to have breathing problems.
Long-Haulers Feel Bad After COVID-19:
Long-haulers report symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain, trouble breathing and joint pain that last for months. Although older people are more likely to have difficulty snapping back after an infection, a significant proportion of younger people also report symptoms that linger.
Even people who were not sick enough to be hospitalized may experience some of these long-term health consequences. Some survivors, including previously healthy young athletes, have evidence of damage to the heart muscle. In one study of 55 patients three months after hospital discharge, 70% had imaging abnormalities suggestive of lung fibrosis.
Neurological and Psychological Reactions to COVID-19:
There are also quite a few people who suffer mood swings and brain fog months after the initial illness. In addition, long-haulers may be vulnerable to isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety. After all, no one expects them to continue to suffer. British researchers report that approximately 10% of patients feel very bad after COVID-19 (JAMA, online Sept. 23, 2020).
No one yet knows how long these symptoms may persist. However, with millions of people recovering from COVID-19, the world needs thoughtful comprehensive studies that can guide programs of care.
You may wish to listen to our interview with social epidemiologist Dr. Margot Gage Witvliet, who describes what it is like to feel bad after COVID-19 six months later. We also discuss long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms with Dr. Michael Saag. Both interviews are included in our Show 1230, scheduled for radio broadcast on Oct. 10, 2020.
Show 1230: What Happens When COVID Symptoms Don’t Go Away
Even young healthy people may have trouble when COVID symptoms don’t go away for weeks or months. Find out what it’s like.