'Long Hauler’ COVID Patients Still Have Symptoms Months Later — and Most Are Women and the Elderly

There are still plenty of unknowns about COVID-19, including the long-term effects on anyone who contracted the virus. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that some patients — referred to as “long haulers” — will continue to suffer symptoms for weeks or months after their initial illness.

These “long haulers” may continue to feel fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and respiratory issues well after they should have gotten past their illness. And a new preprint study, from researchers at King’s College London, found that women, the elderly and people who had a wide range of symptoms at the start of their illness are the most likely people to become “long haulers.”

In a survey of 4,182 COVID-19 patients in the U.K., about 1 in 7 people qualified as having “long COVID,” meaning they had continued symptoms for more than four weeks. Another 1 in 20 reported having symptoms for eight weeks or more, and 1 in 50 were still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms at least 12 weeks later. The others all felt better after about 11 days.

The researchers found that the “long haulers” typically had symptoms that fell into two categories — in one group, they mostly had respiratory symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, headaches and fatigue; the other experienced symptoms throughout the body, like intestinal issues, heart palpitations, numbness and “brain fog.”

“COVID-19 is a mild illness for many, but for 1 in 50 symptoms can persist for longer than 12 weeks. So it’s important that, as well as worrying about excess deaths, we also need to consider those who will be affected by long COVID if we don’t get the pandemic under control soon,” Dr. Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “As we wait for a vaccine, it is vital that we all work together to stem the spread of coronavirus via lifestyle changes and more rigorous self-isolating with symptoms or positive tests.”

Most of the “long haulers” were elderly adults — 21.9 percent of COVID-19 patients over 70 years old developed long COVID. And younger women between 18 to 49 years old were more likely than men in the same age bracket to be “long haulers” — 14.9 percent compared to 9.5 percent.

"It's important we use the knowledge we have gained from the first wave in the pandemic to reduce the long-term impact of the second,” Dr. Claire Steves, clinical academic and senior author on the study, said. This should pave the way for trials of early interventions to reduce the long-term effects."

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