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The reality of ‘long Covid’

By Morgan Carpenter

Morgan Carpenter explores the lasting effects of Covid-19.

Coronavirus cases continue to rise in the UK, and with it reports of so-called “long Covid” (formally called post-acute Covid-19). Associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton Nisreen Alwan described “long Covid” in a recent panel with the British Medical Journal as “not recovering [for] several weeks or months following the start of symptoms that were suggestive of Covid, whether you were tested or not.” These are people whose symptoms were not severe enough to warrant hospital admission, but could last for weeks or months after their initial diagnosis.

Most sources report several main symptoms lingering after the initial sickness, including fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, and muscle aches. In other words it’s common for “long Covid” to manifest as a relapse into the same symptoms of the original infection, after a patient has seemingly otherwise recovered. Further, it seems that the most common symptom likely to remain after three weeks is fatigue, which is seen in up to 80% of “long Covid” cases.

This extended version of the virus seems to be affecting some groups more than others; those who are already in risk groups, are over 65 years old, or those who present harsher symptoms initially. Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, points to severe symptoms in the first week as an indicator of a case likely to go on longer than three weeks. A data set gathered by the Covid Symptom Study app reveals that about one in twenty people who catch the virus and develop symptoms will experience it evolving into “long Covid”. However, it looks likely that the vast majority of people will start feeling back to normal in eleven days or less.

More worryingly however, are the lasting cardiovascular impacts of the virus on patients with pre-existing heart conditions. In these cases, “long Covid” can present itself as lingering arrhythmia, as the heart was beating faster during the illness and continues to do so after other symptoms have gone into remission. 

The prognosis is hopeful though, with most patients recovering spontaneously at home if they’re able to access support for their symptoms, and frankly a lot of patience. Support can include continued monitoring, treatment of coughs and shortness of breath through breathing exercises, as well as gradual increases in physical activity. Most patients found success in using light aerobic activities to regain energy and strength, starting slow and working their way up across four to six weeks. 

The majority of people with “long Covid” are not contagious any longer than faster-recovering patients, but rather stop being infectious after the same 10-14 day window of the initial onslaught of symptoms. 

The mental health of patients suffering from the extended infection is a significant concern, particularly in cases where the illness interrupts someone’s life for an extended period of time beyond four weeks. This greatly impacts the well-being of the patient, but has also causes an emotional and mental burden for many carers across the country. In these cases, social support and sustained self-care becomes increasingly vital. 


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