A study of 177 COVID-19 patients found that a third of individuals experienced lingering symptoms, mostly among those with mild cases, after being followed for as long as nine months post infection. Nearly 30% of patients also reported diminished health-related quality of life following their abnormally long bout with the disease.
The University of Washington researchers said although small, their study, based on their knowledge, is the “longest follow-up symptom assessment after COVID-19 infection.”
The study’s findings align with previous papers that have found hundreds of cases of “long-haulers” — a problem that not only interferes with affected patients’ everyday lives, but also poses challenges to hospital systems and health care professionals trying to treat new and returning patients.
“Our research indicates that the health consequences of COVID-19 extend far beyond acute infection, even among those who experience mild illness. Comprehensive long-term investigation will be necessary to fully understand the impact of this evolving viral pathogen,” the researchers wrote in their study published Feb. 19 in the JAMA journal Infectious Diseases.
“With [millions of] cases worldwide, even a small incidence of long-term debility could have enormous health and economic consequences,” they added.
A total of 177 patients who contracted the coronavirus completed a questionnaire about symptoms they felt after testing negative. The majority (about 85%) had a mild illness, while fewer patients had moderate or severe COVID-19 requiring hospitalization (9%) or were asymptomatic (about 6%). The surveys were completed between three and nine months after COVID-19 patients first tested positive.
Persistent symptoms were reported by about a third of outpatients and hospitalized patients in the study, the researchers said, most of them being 65 years and older, relative to the number of people in each age group. Next, people aged 40 to 64 then those between 18 and 39 experienced persistent symptoms after their infection cleared.
The most common symptoms were fatigue and loss of taste or smell in about 14% of the patients who completed the survey. Other symptoms such as brain fog were also reported.
Health-related quality of life also went down hill for about a third of outpatient and hospitalized individuals. Some reported “negative impacts” on at least one daily activity.
More, larger studies are underway to understand why so many people are feeling COVID-19 symptoms so long after illness onset. Two clinical trials in particular, one by the National Institutes of Health and another by the University of California, San Francisco, have already started following COVID-19 long-haulers and will do so for seven and four years, respectively.
Each will analyze up to 900 COVID-19 patients in the hopes of learning what about the disease allows symptoms to persist for so long, and how these lingering symptoms affect the human body. Some disability advocates and lawmakers are considering whether coronavirus long-haulers qualify for disability benefits, according to NPR.
“If we end up with a million people with ongoing symptoms that are debilitating, that is a tremendous burden for each of those individuals, but also for our health care system and our society,” Dr. Steven Martin, a physician and professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School, told the outlet.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in November that the more serious but less common long-hauler symptoms include heart dysfunction, respiratory abnormalities, acute kidney injury, skin rashes, sleeping problems and mood changes such as depression and anxiety.
The agency said they are actively working on learning more about the “short- and long-term health effects associated with COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolds, we are learning that many organs besides the lungs are affected by COVID-19 and there are many ways the infection can affect someone’s health.”
“Even people who are not hospitalized and who have mild illness can experience persistent or late symptoms,” the CDC said.