Long COVID: 70% of patients still suffer debilitating symptoms five months later, study finds

·3-min read

Seven in 10 people taken to hospital with COVID-19 have not fully recovered after five months, new research suggests.

The UK-wide study also found one in five developed a new disability in that time.

Middle-aged white women, with at least two underlying health conditions, experienced the worst long-term effects.

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With more than 300,000 post-hospitalisation survivors of coronavirus in the UK, researchers warned the number of people affected by what has been termed "long COVID" could be "very large".

The survey, which was led by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, analysed 1,077 patients who were discharged from hospital between March and November 2020 following a coronavirus infection.

Researchers found that each participant had an average of nine persistent symptoms.

Muscle pain, fatigue, breathlessness, short-term memory loss and slowed thinking were among the most common reported symptoms.

More than a quarter had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression at their five-month follow-up.

Twelve percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while almost half (46%) experienced reduced physical performance.

Of the 67.5% of participants who were working before contracting coronavirus, 17.8% were no longer working, while 19% experienced a health-related change in their occupational status.

Chris Brightling, a professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Leicester and the chief investigator for the PHOSP-COVID study, said: "While the profile of patients being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 is disproportionately male and from an ethnic minority background, our study finds that those who have the most severe prolonged symptoms tend to be white women aged approximately 40 to 60 who have at least two long-term health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes."

The study revealed a "U-shaped" association between the age of participants and their recovery, with the under-30s and over-80s less likely to experience prolonged symptoms.

The researchers were able to classify types of recovery into four different groups based on participants' mental and physical health impairments.

Patients in the group which predominantly experienced "brain fog", or impaired cognitive function, tended to be older and male.

Dr Rachael Evans, an associate professor at the University of Leicester and respiratory consultant at Leicester's Hospitals, said: "It is clear that those who required mechanical ventilation and were admitted to intensive care take longer to recover.

"However, much of the wide variety of persistent problems was not explained by the severity of the acute illness - the latter largely driven by acute lung injury - indicating other, possibly more systemic, underlying mechanisms."

But the research has uncovered a potential biological factor behind some of the long term effects of COVID.

In all but the mildest post-hospital cases, levels of a chemical called C-reactive protein (CRP), which is associated with inflammation, were elevated.

Professor Louise Wain, GSK/British Lung Foundation chair in respiratory research at the University of Leicester and co-investigator for the PHOSP-COVID study, said: "It is known that systemic inflammation is associated with poor recovery from illnesses across the disease spectrum.

"We also know that autoimmunity, where the body has an immune response to its own healthy cells and organs, is more common in middle-aged women.

"This may explain why post-COVID syndrome seems to be more prevalent in this group, but further investigation is needed to fully understand the processes."

The study, which has not been peer reviewed, appeared to suggest the medicines, including corticosteroids, given to patients during hospitalisation do not have an impact on longer term recovery.

All patients in the study will be assessed again at 12 months to help inform how the long term effects of COVID can best be treated.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: "I know long COVID can have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected and I'm determined to improve the care we can provide.

"Studies like this help us to rapidly build our understanding of the impact of the condition and we are working to develop new research so we can support and treat people."