What is long COVID?
Covid-19 is leaving some people with longer-term health problems – it's been called ‘long COVID’. But what exactly is it?
- Fatigue and pain are the most common symptoms of long COVID
- Other signs include chest pain, headaches, poor memory and loss of concentration
- 1 in 20 people with Covid-19 has symptoms for 8 weeks or more
Within months of the pandemic reaching Europe, we started to hear reports 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 long-term symptoms and coined the term long COVID. Three months later, the description was adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Here’s a snapshot of what we know so far.
What are the symptoms of long COVID?
The most commonly reported symptoms are:
- Extreme fatigue
- Chest and muscular pains
- Poor memory
- Loss of concentration
But long COVID can also cause symptoms like:
- Loss of taste
- Loss of smell
- Sore throat
- Abdominal pain
It can also affect the cardiovascular system and heart, kidneys, gut and liver.
‘Covid-19 is also to be considered a systemic disease, not only a respiratory disease, even though the virus enters the body through the respiratory system,’ says Dr Annette Alaeus, Livi’s infectious diseases specialist.
‘This systemic involvement is probably immune-related and, of course, different people react in different ways to the infection.’
One study, which used MRI scans to check previously healthy patients, found that two-thirds had damage to one organ and a quarter had multi-organ damage.
How common is long COVID?
It’s still too soon to have reliable large-scale statistics. But research by the WHO found 35% of people were still unwell 2-3 weeks after testing positive. Meanwhile, scientists at King’s College London found that 1 in 20 people with Covid-19 has symptoms for 8 weeks or more.
Who is at most risk?
Just as age increases the risk of Covid-19 complications, so too does it increase the risk of long COVID. One study found that more than a fifth of the over-70s who caught Covid-19 also developed long Covid.
In people aged 18-49, women were 50% more likely to suffer from long Covid than men.
People are also more likely to suffer if they have conditions like:
- High blood pressure
- An existing mental health issue
But previously fit, healthy and relatively young people can also be affected.
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 auto-immune conditions like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Men are more likely to die from Covid-19, but women seem to be more prone to long COVID — though more research is needed on this.
Is there any way to prevent long COVID?
The only real way to prevent long COVID is to avoid catching the coronavirus. Read more about how to stay safe in winter during the pandemic.
It’s too early to know what might reduce the risk of developing long COVID. But losing weight if you’re overweight, keeping fit with outdoor activities if possible, eating a nutritious diet and topping up with vitamin D to support your immune system.
What if you think you have long COVID?
Talk to your doctor without delay to help you figure out a plan for recovery. This may include specialist help with 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, Livi infectious diseases specialist.
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