It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since COVID-19 first emerged, and researchers are still hard at work trying to figure out how the virus affects the human body.
A study presented Monday at a scientific conference in Lisbon, Portugal, suggests that long COVID may be even more prevalent than previously believed. In a survey of nearly 300 people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 one year before, 59.5 percent of respondents said they were still dealing with at least one long COVID symptom. The most common symptoms were fatigue, shortness of breath, and irritability.
“[Our study] shows that long Covid can still have a large impact on quality of life, even a year after the acute infection,” says co-author Aurelie Fischer.
The study brings long COVID into clearer focus
This is a small study that requires confirmation, but the findings are a big contribution to our understanding of the effects of long COVID. While most similar studies have tracked the outcomes of people who were hospitalized with the disease, this study also includes participants who were asymptomatic or had less serious infections.
Just over half of the 289 participants were women, and the average age was roughly 40. Each participant filled out detailed questionnaires asking about their experiences with known long COVID symptoms. Six in ten participants reported at least one symptom a year after infection. The most common symptom was trouble sleeping, which more than half (54.2 percent) of participants reported in the questionnaire. One in three were dealing with fatigue, and one in eight were still suffering from respiratory problems.
Long COVID is probably affecting hundreds of millions of people
The research revealed that the seriousness of a person’s initial infection significantly influences their likelihood of suffering from long COVID. Those who had a moderate or severe case of COVID-19 were more than twice as likely to report having a lingering symptom than someone whose initial case was asymptomatic. Patients who had mild symptoms fell in between.
“In general, the more severe the acute illness is, the more likely someone is to have ongoing symptoms,” Fischer says, though she cautions that an asymptomatic or mild case doesn’t mean that long COVID syndrome won’t be a problem. “Those with an asymptomatic or mild initial infection may also experience a deterioration in their quality of life,” she says. Many people with long COVID symptoms are dealing with neurological problems, and the syndrome frequently affects multiple organs.
The researchers also noticed that some symptoms seem to cluster together, suggesting there may be several distinct types of long COVID syndrome “distinguished by particular combinations of symptoms,” she says.
One final statistic from the study presented in Lisbon offers a sobering reminder of just how serious long COVID can be. More than one in seven participants told the researchers they couldn’t imagine coping with their symptoms in the long term.
The researchers plan to continue following this cohort of patients as they navigate their second year of contending with long COVID.