Many people who get COVID-19 do not suffer any symptoms at all.
For some people though, symptoms can last for weeks and months after the infection has gone. This is known as post-COVID-19 syndrome or, more commonly, long COVID.
This sort of illness is not unique to COVID-19 however, as other viral illnesses can have lingering or long-lasting effects long after the initial infection.
The ongoing Effects of Long COVID
Just like Covid-19 itself, the effects of long COVID can vary quite widely. A study of more than 4,000 long COVID sufferers divided symptoms into two main groups; one of which was mainly respiratory in nature and the other affecting many other parts of the body including the heart and gut.
Respiratory symptoms included breathlessness and a persistent cough, as well as respiratory-associated headaches and fatigue. Other commonly reported symptoms included heart-related effects such as increased heart rate and palpitations. Long COVID has also been linked to mental health problems of various kinds.
In some cases, patients report feeling better before worsening again in a recurring cycle. It’s also worth noting that the effects of long COVID are not restricted to people who were seriously ill or hospitalised when they first got the virus.
Some commonly reported symptoms from long COVID include:
- – Breathlessness
- – Coughing
- – High temperature
- – Fatigue
- – Chest pains
- – Muscle or joint pains
- – Palpitations
- – Dizziness
- – Earaches and tinnitus
- – Pins and needles
- – Change to sense of smell or taste
- – Difficulty thinking or concentrating (‘brain fog’)
- – Difficulty sleeping
- – Mental health issues including depression and anxiety
This list is not exhaustive, with support groups and researchers recording numerous other symptoms. The symptoms listed above are certainly some of the most commonly reported signs and symptoms of long COVID, however.
How long does long COVID last?
Doctors and researchers are still learning about long COVID, including typical and exceptional durations.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) uses the following clinical definition for post-COVID-19 syndrome: Signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 12 weeks and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.
This essentially means that long COVID by definition only starts 12 weeks after initial infection, being classed as ongoing symptomatic COVID-19 before that point.
Some studies suggest it is common to last for five months or more, with some reports of long COVID lasting more than 12 months from infection. As it is only a little more than a year since the pandemic took hold globally, we will learn more as we go along.
Long COVID effects on children and teenagers
There has been a lot of concern about the potential impact of long COVID on younger people and the long term effects on teenagers and children, even if they are less likely to suffer severe symptoms from the initial infection.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that 13% of under 11s and around 15% of 12 to 16-year-olds reported at least one symptom, such as fatigue, cough, headache, muscle aches or loss of taste or smell at five weeks after a confirmed COVID-19 infection.
There are limitations to the data presented by the ONS with some critics pointing out that some symptoms like a cough could also be cause by other common childhood illnesses.
More research is needed and is currently being carried out but it seems to be the case that children and teenagers can suffer from long COVID, even if the extent of the risk is not yet clear.
According to Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, an important question is whether even a mild or asymptomatic infection can lead to long COVID in children.
How mental health will be affected by long COVID
There have been a number of studies into ongoing effects of COVID and mental health, including the impact of long COVID.
It has been established that a lot of people who suffered severe symptoms from a COVID-19 infection, particularly those who were hospitalised, went on to suffer from associated mental health issues, including depression and symptoms matching those for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
One recent study notes, though, that that there is still little relatively little data available on psychiatric ill-health in people who have recovered from COVID-19 and especially those who have suffered or continue to suffer from long COVID.
One study does suggest that these people are more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, with an estimated incidence of mood disorders of 9.9%. This estimate may also be an under-estimation as it relied on reporting through electronic health data rather than active screening of symptoms.
Can you catch long COVID?
The short answer is no, you cannot catch long COVID. By the time it has developed the virus itself is long gone and you will no longer be infectious – the symptoms from long COVID are caused by your body’s response to the COVID-19 virus lasting beyond the initial infection.
COVID-19 itself is of course infectious and relevant self-isolation rules still apply for people contracting the virus.
Ways to help with effects of long COVID
Long COVID can be debilitating but there may be things you can do to help mitigate the symptoms. If you suffer from fatigue and breathlessness, try not to over-exert yourself.
Pace yourself on physical and mental tasks and don’t take on too much. Physical exercise can be beneficial but don’t over-do it. Short walks or simple strength and flexibility-building exercises may be enough to begin with.
There are now a number of specialist long COVID clinics in England and Wales and your GP will be able to give you advice. You can also visit the NHS website yourcovidrecovery.nhs.uk for more information.
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