What is long Covid, what are the symptoms and how long does it last?

Many still suffering from persistent after-effects of coronavirus

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 08 March 2023 11:28 GMT
Related: Rishi Sunak backs official Covid inquiry after Matt Hancock WhatsApp leaks

The number of people in England currently suffering from Covid-19 has risen to one in 45, according to the latest data.

The data from the Office for National Statistics accounts for 2.31 per cent of the English population, with the situation roughly similar in Scotland (2.22 per cent) and Wales (2.21 per cent) and around half of that, 1.14 per cent or one in 90, in Northern Ireland.

While many citizens might, very understandably, prefer to consign the coronavirus to history, it keeps making reappearances in our lives, continuing to mutate into new subtle variations and make people sick.

One of its nastiest aspects is long Covid, in which the after-effects linger on in a patient’s system long after the initial onslaught from the infection has passed.

Around 2m people UK citizens (or 3 per cent of the total population) were suffering from long Covid as of 2 January 2023, the ONS says in its latest filing, but what exactly is the condition and why does it have such a differing impact on different people?

What is long Covid?

The NHS says of long Covid: “Most people with coronavirus (Covid-19) feel better within a few days or weeks of their first symptoms and make a full recovery within 12 weeks. For some people, symptoms can last longer.

“This is called long Covid or post Covid-19 syndrome. Long Covid is a new condition which is still being studied.”

Medical professionals have identified two forms of the condition, drawing a distinction between ongoing symptomatic Covid, in which the symptoms last for four to 12 weeks, and post-Covid syndrome, which is said to have occurred if symptoms endure for over 12 weeks.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms listed by the health service are extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, loss of smell and muscle aches.

However, long Covid appears to strike different patients in different ways and other reported symptoms include everything from problems with memory and concentration (or “brain fog”) to chest pain, difficulty sleeping, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles, joint pain, depression and anxiety, tinnitus and earaches, feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite, a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat and changes to sense of smell or taste and rashes.

Erectile dysfunction and hair loss have also been associated with long Covid in the past.

What help is available and how long can it take to recover?

The official advice is to seek a GP’s appointment if your symptoms persist four weeks after a negative test, at which point your doctor might seek further tests if your life is continuing to be impacted by your condition.

This might mean blood tests, checking your blood pressure and heart rate, a chest X-ray or measuring your oxygen levels, the NHS says.

Your doctor will discuss treatment options depending on your specific symptoms and their severity, with referral to a specialist a possibility in extreme cases.

As the condition is so variable, recovery can take place within a matter of days or take as long as 12 weeks or more.

Research is still being undertaken to resolve unanswered questions about long Covid, with Dr Marc Sala of the Northwestern Medicine Comprehensive Covid-19 Center telling The Guardian:  “We don’t quite have our finger on the pulse of what’s wrong, what biologically is causing it, and that’s a big problem. It’s hard to direct drugs or treatments without having the biological underpinnings for why someone is feeling so fatigued with exercise.”

Doctors point out that, despite the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus, it is still a relatively young disease after three years, at least in research terms, so more time will be needed to truly understand its quirks, with the sheer number and variety of symptoms associated with it complicating the picture considerably.

That will be little comfort to long Covid sufferers, however, many of whom express frustration or dismay that others do not appear to believe that their condition is real or that they are exaggerating their discomfort.

Anyone suffering from long Covid is directed by the NHS to its Your Covid Recovery website for further help and support.

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