Within months of the pandemic reaching Europe, reports emerged that Covid-19 was leaving some people struggling with long-term fatigue and other problems.
In May 2020, an Italian doctor, Dr Elisa Perego, described her own symptoms and coined the term ‘long Covid’. 3 months later, the description was adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO).
As reports continue to rise, new names have emerged, from ‘long-haul Covid’ to ‘post-Covid syndrome’ to ‘chronic Covid syndrome (CCS)’.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) defines long Covid as the symptoms that continue or develop beyond 4 weeks post-infection.
Here’s a snapshot of what we know so far.
What are the symptoms of long Covid?
Long Covid can have a wide range of effects, with hundreds of different symptoms being reported. The symptoms can vary depending on whether you’ve been hospitalised or not.
Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle aches
- Cognitive dysfunction, including poor memory and difficulty concentrating
- Chest tightness or heaviness
Long Covid can affect organs and tissues all around the body, including the lungs, heart, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, gut and liver.
‘Covid-19 is considered to be a systemic disease, not just a respiratory disease, even though the virus enters the body through the respiratory system,’ says Dr Annette Alaeus, a Livi medical doctor and infectious disease specialist.
‘This systemic involvement is probably immune-related and different individuals react in different ways to the infection.’
How common is long Covid?
It’s still too soon to have reliable large-scale statistics, but studies suggest a substantial number of people may be affected.
Around 1 in 5 people experience Covid-19 symptoms that last for 5 weeks or longer, but 1 in 10 people are still unwell after 12 weeks.
Some studies have focused on people who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19. One study found that three-quarters of patients still had lasting symptoms 6 months after being hospitalised.
But long Covid can affect people with mild cases of Covid-19 too. A survey found that around 30% of people had persistent symptoms after 9 months – notably, the majority of the survey respondents had a mild bout.
Who is at most risk?
Long Covid can affect anyone, but people are more likely to suffer if they have conditions like:
- High blood pressure
- An existing mental health issue
Previously fit, healthy and relatively young people can also be affected.
Just because something is a risk factor for Covid-19, it doesn’t mean it is one for long Covid.
Older age increases the risk of Covid-19 complications, but the group estimated to be most affected by long Covid is 35- to 49-year-olds, followed by 50- to 69-year-olds, then over 70s.
Likewise, men are more likely to experience a severe initial infection of Covid-19, but the risk of long Covid is higher for women.
Why are women at greater risk?
This may be down to gender differences in our immune systems. For example, studies show that women have a lower risk of catching infections, but they have higher chances of developing autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Is there any way to prevent it?
The only real way to avoid long Covid is to avoid catching Covid-19 in the first place. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to get vaccinated if you can. Vaccines are a safe and effective way to reduce your risk of Covid-19 and its complications.
How is long Covid treated?
As of January 2021, the WHO recommends that all patients should have access to follow-up care in cases of long Covid.
But there’s still a lot we don’t understand about the condition, and research is currently underway to test different treatments. Since long Covid can affect so many parts of the body, treatment may require a multidisciplinary team of different specialists.
What if I think I have long Covid?
Talk to a doctor right away. They can look at your symptoms and help you figure out a plan for recovery, which may include specialist help for rehabilitation. A Livi doctor can talk through your symptoms with you and suggest next steps.
This article has been medically approved by Dr Annette Alaeus, a Livi medical doctor and infectious disease specialist.