Almost half of patients suffering from ‘long Covid’ may be left unable to fully return to work six months after their infection, a study suggests.
Victims were most likely to still be plagued with fatigue, ‘brain fog’ or feeling unwell after attempting minor physical exercise.
Long Covid strikes one in ten under-50s who are infected with Covid-19, according estimates. But studies have suggested women are 50 per cent more likely to suffer with persistent symptoms than men.
Experts warn the NHS could face crippling demand from long Covid patients when the pandemic comes to an end, given that millions of Britons have already caught the disease.
Scientists have revealed that the risk of suffering symptoms of coronavirus for long Covid patients drops over time, but that many may be unable to return to work for six months
‘I really hope that I go back to my normal self’: Nursery practitioner, 23, who has been off work for seven months due to ‘long Covid’
Jade, 23, has been unable to return to work
Jade, 23, from Whitney in Oxfordshire, has been unable to return to work since catching the virus. She has no underlying health conditions.
When did you catch the virus? March
What was your illness like? Jade’s symptoms started with a tight chest and a sore throat, which also led to a dry hacking continuous cough.
As the week continued, she got a high temperature, awful headaches and flu-like symptoms. This progressed to feeling a tightness in her chest, which led to her struggling to breathe.
She was admitted to hospital for one night for antibiotics and fluids through an IV line.
How long have you had ‘long Covid’? Seven months
What are your symptoms like now? Jade said she can no longer work and suffers chronic fatigue, muscle aches, fevers, nausea and a fluctuating heart rate. Each day is different; some are easier than others but her symptoms are always persistent.
‘I didn’t think I would get it as bad as I did,’ Jade said. ‘I haven’t had a day since mid-March where I’ve felt better.’
‘I’m having to rest more sleep more and i just don’t have the energy that I used to at all.
‘I really hope that I go back to my normal self, not knowing makes me feel really worried about my future.’
What was your life like before? Jade said she was active and sociable, always going out with her friends and family.
Researchers from the group Patient-Led Research for Covid-19 investigated the impact of long Covid by surveying more than 3,700 patients complaining of persistent symptoms.
They found 1,665 – or 45 per cent – said they had a ‘reduced’ work schedule than before they became unwell.
And 825 – or 22.3 per cent – were not working due to health conditions, although the researchers didn’t say whether this was due to the virus or an underlying factor present before they were infected.
Up to 317 – or eight per cent – said their symptoms had become severe enough for them to be admitted to hospital, and 1,312 – or 35 per cent – said they had visited A&E due to symptoms.
NHS England guidance warns Covid-19 sufferers should call an ambulance if their symptoms get worse or last for longer than seven days.
They add severe shortness of breath, coughing up blood, blue lips or face, feeling clammy and cold, collapsing, becoming difficult to rouse, feeling confused and not visiting the toilet often are also warning signs patients should be heading to A&E units.
But in the survey participants didn’t say what symptoms had led to them attending hospital.
More than half of all patients surveyed – 2,454 or 66 per cent – were still suffering at least one symptom of coronavirus six months after their infection.
Fatigue was the most common – faced by 1,890 or 77 per cent. It was followed by feeling unwell after exercise or mental activity – at 1,766 or 72 per cent.
Brain fog, or cognitive dysfunction, was the third most common symptom – at 1,354 or 55.4 per cent.
It was unclear whether the reduced work schedule was linked to their infection, or because lockdowns had resulted in less work being available.
‘Patients with Long Covid report prolonged multi-system involvement and significant disability,’ the researchers wrote.
‘Most had not returned to previous levels of work by six months.
‘Many patients are not recovered by seven months, and continue to experience significant symptom burden.’
The study was published as a pre-print in Medrxiv. It has not been peer-reviewed, meaning other scientists haven’t had the chance to double-check the results.
In the sample, a third were in their 40s, 27 per cent in their 50s and 26 per cent were aged 30 to 39. The majority of respondents (79 per cent) were women.
Doctors are still baffled by long Covid, with most people who contract the virus recovering within a fortnight without suffering a fever, cough or losing their sense of smell or taste.
But thousands of survivors have reported being plagued by symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain and heart arrhythmias – irregular heart beats – months after beating the disease.
Doctors have cautioned some mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in ‘long-haulers’, as they are known, could be down to lockdowns, as opposed to the virus itself.
The NHS said in November last year it would launch 40 long Covid clinics to help patients tackling persistent symptoms.
The £10million clinics, which have already started to open, are giving patients access to doctors, nurses, therapists and other NHS staff.
Ten will be in the Midlands, seven in the North East, six in the East of England, South West and South East respectively, five in London and three in the North West.
NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said in November: ‘Long Covid is already having a very serious impact on many people’s lives and could well go on to affect hundreds of thousands.
‘That is why, while treating rising numbers of patients who are sick with the virus and many more who do not have it, the NHS is taking action to address those suffering ongoing health issues.’
WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19?
Most coronavirus patients will recover within a fortnight, suffering a fever, cough and losing their sense of smell or taste for several days.
However, evidence is beginning to show that the tell-tale symptoms of the virus can persist for weeks on end in ‘long haulers’ — the term for patients plagued by lasting complications.
Data from the COVID Symptom Study app, by King’s College London and health company Zoe, suggests one in ten people may still have symptoms after three weeks, and some may suffer for months.
Long term symptoms include:
- Chronic tiredness
- Raised heart rate
- Loss of taste/smell
- Kidney disease
- Mobility issues
- Muscle pains
For those with more severe disease, Italian researchers who tracked 143 people who had been hospitalised with the disease found almost 90 per cent still had symptoms including fatigue two months after first falling unwell.
The most common complaints were fatigue, a shortness of breath and joint pain – all of which were reported during their battle with the illness.
Another study in Italy showed one in ten people who lose their sense of taste and smell with the coronavirus – now recognised as a key sign of the infection – may not get it back within a month.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, involved 187 Italians who had the virus but who were not ill enough to be admitted to hospital.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has said the longer term impacts of Covid-19 on health ‘may be significant’.
Support groups such as Long Covid have popped up online for those who ‘have suspected Covid-19 and your experience doesn’t follow the textbook symptoms or recovery time’.