Around one in five people have lingering side-effects of Covid-19 up to five weeks after initially falling sick, according to a big new analysis in the UK. Furthermore, around one in 10 people with Covid-19 appear to experience nagging symptoms for 12 weeks or longer.
The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released preliminary information from its report on the prevalence of “long Covid,” the lingering impact of the coronavirus infection that can sometimes last for months. A number of other studies across the world have attempted to tackle this question before, but this new work is one of the biggest and most extensive investigations yet. The ONS says the report is “very much a work in progress" and still in its infancy, but it’s revealed some important insights into the mysterious phenomenon of long Covid.
Using data from the ONS Infection Survey on hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, the report found that during the last week of November 2020 around 186,000 people in England were living with long Covid symptoms that had persisted for between five and 12 weeks.
The most commonly reported symptom was fatigue, followed by a cough, headache, loss of taste, loss of smell, sore throat, fever, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
“These preliminary data are very concerning,” commented Dr David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, who was not directly involved in the survey.
“These data also give an insight into the range of complications occurring, for example, the risk of a heart attack, stroke or heart failure being nearly 12 times higher in Covid patients than in comparable patients hospitalized with other infections, and the rates of developing diabetes or kidney failure being ~9 and ~10 times higher respectively,” he added.
“These confirm what we have seen working on the Covid wards, that this virus is more than a simple respiratory infection, but is a multi-system disease.”
Many other reports have shown Covid-19 infections can also spark psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety or depression, within three months of falling sick, although this was not detailed in the new ONS survey. One widely reported symptom is a lingering feeling of “brain fog,” where people struggle to concentrate and experience memory loss.
Researchers are still grappling to understand long Covid. While persisting symptoms can be seen with other viral infections, most often post-viral fatigue or a post-viral cough, lingering side-effects appear to be a hallmark of Covid-19. There are lots of ideas about why SARS-Cov-2 causes these long term complications, but no definitive answers. A report by the British National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in October proposed the idea that long Covid may not be one syndrome but possibly up to four different syndromes: permanent organ damage, post-intensive-care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome, and continuing Covid-19 symptoms.
Whatever the cause, long Covid is a problem that could cause misery for millions of people worldwide. Worryingly, it also opens up the very real possibility of Covid-19 causing further health concerns in the years and decades to come, which could a huge strain on healthcare systems across the world.
"Although post-viral symptoms are common, whether after flu or other coronaviruses, the scale of this pandemic and the potential number of infected people with long Covid is unprecedented, and poses yet another Covid-19-related public health challenge," explained Dr Amitava Banerjee, Associate Professor in Clinical Data Science and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at University College London.