One in ten under-50s who catch the coronavirus will be plagued by ‘long Covid’ and suffer lasting side effects including heart palpitations, muscle weakness and ‘brain fog’, according to research.
And women are 50 per cent more likely to suffer persistent problems after beating the disease, which experts say may persist for more than 12 weeks after the body has fought off the infection.
Scientists at King’s College London uncovered the figures after examining data from 4,000 volunteers who have tested positive for the illness and use the Covid-19 Symptom Study App.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the figures are a stark reminder that the disease has lasting effects, even if the risk of death is low to young people.
And NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens today told a conference of health professionals that long Covid is a ‘real thing’.
The Department of Health today released a video of four coronavirus survivors aged between 23 and 48 who have been left battling against ‘long Covid’ in the wake of the virus, despite having no underlying health conditions.
Nursery worker Jade, of Witney, Oxfordshire, was regularly out with friends before catching Covid-19 in March — but the 23-year-old has since been unable to return to work and still suffers from muscle aches, fevers, nausea and a fluctuating heart rate more than seven months after she fought off the infection.
Marathon runner and business owner Tom, 32, from Haringey, London, warned: ‘Do not make the mistake of thinking that being young or being fit is going to stop Covid-19 from having a long-term impact on your health.’ After catching the virus in March, he has been left suffering symptoms including chest pains, breathing issues and distorted senses.
This graph shows the distribution of Covid-19 symptoms by time in those that tested positive (orange) and negative (blue). It reveals many continue to suffer debilitating symptoms over a long period of time. The yellow line (LC28) marks symptoms reported for more than 28 days, and the red line (LC56) marks symptoms reported for more than 50 days
‘I really hope that I go back to my normal self’: Nursery practitioner, 23, who has been off work for seven months due to ‘long Covid’
Jade, 23, has been unable to return to work
Jade, 23, from Whitney in Oxfordshire, has been unable to return to work since catching the virus. She has no underlying health conditions.
When did you catch the virus? March
What was your illness like? Jade’s symptoms started with a tight chest and a sore throat, which also led to a dry hacking continuous cough.
As the week continued, she got a high temperature, awful headaches and flu-like symptoms. This progressed to feeling a tightness in her chest, which led to her struggling to breathe.
She was admitted to hospital for one night for antibiotics and fluids through an IV line.
How long have you had ‘long Covid’? Seven months
What are your symptoms like now? Jade said she can no longer work and suffers chronic fatigue, muscle aches, fevers, nausea and a fluctuating heart rate. Each day is different; some are easier than others but her symptoms are always persistent.
‘I didn’t think I would get it as bad as I did,’ Jade said. ‘I haven’t had a day since mid-March where I’ve felt better.’
‘I’m having to rest more sleep more and i just don’t have the energy that I used to at all.
‘I really hope that I go back to my normal self, not knowing makes me feel really worried about my future.’
What was your life like before? Jade said she was active and sociable, always going out with her friends and family.
Doctors are still baffled by ‘long Covid’. Most people who contract the virus will recover within a fortnight after suffering a fever, cough and losing their sense of smell or taste for several days.
But thousands of survivors have reported being plagued by symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain and heart arrhythmias – irregular heart beats – months after beating the disease.
Doctors have cautioned some mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in ‘long-haulers’, as they are known, could be down to lockdowns, as opposed to the virus itself.
The study used data submitted to the Covid Symptom Study app to determine the impacts of ‘long Covid’ on Britons.
As well as revealing its potential impact on young people, they found two in ten over 70 are also at risk of being struck down by the condition.
They found that weight played a significant role in people’s risk of having lasting symptoms, with sufferers having a slightly higher BMI than average.
One in seven people from all age groups experienced symptoms of ‘long Covid’ for at least four weeks after they had beaten off the virus.
One in 20 suffered the symptoms for eight weeks, and one in 50 had them for longer than 12 weeks.
Coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, and muscle pains were all identified as warning signs of the condition – after a coronavirus infection has subsided.
Despite the warnings, the scientists established that most people they examined were back to normal within 11 days of contracting SARS-CoV-19, dodging the bullet of ‘long Covid’.
Using the data they designed a model to predict who would come down with ‘long Covid’ based on age, gender and early symptoms.
It had a 69 per cent accuracy when it was tested on a separate sample of 2,472 people who had a positive coronavirus antibody test.
Their findings have been published as a pre-print on Medrxiv, and are yet to be peer-reviewed.
Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and lead author of the symptom study app research, said: ‘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.
‘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.’
Dr Claire Steves, who was also involved in the study, said their work should ‘pave the way’ for trials of early interventions to reduce the long term effects.
‘The COVID Symptom Study App has released key findings on ‘long Covid’ that show that older people, women and those with a greater number of different symptoms in the first week of their illness were more likely to develop (the condition),’ she said.
‘Thanks to the diligent logging of our contributors so far, this research could already pave the way for preventative and treatment strategies for “long Covid”.
‘We urge everyone to join the effort by downloading the app and taking just a minute every day to log your health.’
The study comes as the Government continues to push its message of hands, face, space — calling on Britons to wash their hands, wear a mask and social-distance to prevent the spread of the virus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he is becoming ‘acutely aware’ of the lasting and debilitating impact of ‘long Covid’ on people of all ages, regardless of the severity of their initial symptoms.
‘The findings from researchers at King’s College London are stark and this should be a sharp reminder to the public – including to young people – that Covid-19 is indiscriminate and can have long-term and potentially devastating effects,’ he said.
‘The more people take risks by meeting up in large groups or not social distancing, the more the wider population will suffer, and the more cases of long COVID we will see.’
In their latest video, released on YouTube and Twitter, they call on younger people – who are less at risk of death if they catch the virus – to take the restrictions seriously by warning they could still suffer from ‘long Covid’.
Jade, 32, from Stoke Newington in London, explains in the clip how she has been struggling against debilitating symptoms of the condition for more than seven months – which, at one point, left her bed-bound.
Tom, 32, warned everyone – including young people – to take the virus seriously due to its potential long-term impacts. He was a marathon runner
Jade, 32, said that she has been left bed-bound by fatigue for months after she fought off the infection. She says normal daily tasks now tire her out
John, 48, a recruiter says he still suffers from bouts of fatigue that can last two to six weeks, even though he caught the virus back in April
Coronavirus survivor, 45, who used to cycle 60 miles with ease says condition has left her ‘depleted and exhausted’
Roweena Russell, 45, from North Shields
A coronavirus survivor has spoken out about the long term effects the virus has had on her life.
Roweena Russell, 45, from North Shields, started to show early symptoms of coronavirus on April 9 when she struggled to catch her breath and began to feel exhausted.
Over the next few days she began to suffer from memory loss, vomiting and felt constantly dizzy before she became so exhausted and had to ring an ambulance for help.
Now, six months on despite having no underlying health conditions, Roweena is left suffering from long term symptoms of coronavirus which have changed her life.
The 45-year-old said: ‘Before Covid, I was really healthy. I used to be able to do handstands, cartwheels and I would regularly take bike rides over 60 miles and it would only take me 10 minutes to recover.
‘Last week I walked 6,000 steps, the most I have been able to do since having the virus, and it took me three days to recover.
‘My brain has been badly affected and is barely functioning now.
‘I find it really hard to concentrate and focus. I’m so depleted and just feel exhausted.
‘Every day I suffer from chest and kidney pains, my heart rate is all over the place and I can constantly taste blood in my mouth which makes me feel nauseous all of the time.
‘I’ve had inflammation in my hands and feet and my hands have now changed shape and I’ve had to completely change my diet as any white carbs now leave me in agony.’
Before catching the virus she was working to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, going to the gym three times a week and regularly meeting up with friends.
But now Jade struggles to get out of bed because of the fatigue she suffers doing daily tasks. She was never admitted to hospital.
‘I developed coronavirus symptoms in March and, as someone who lives alone, it was very concerning, and I hoped it would be over after a week or two,’ she said.
‘Every time I thought I was making a recovery my symptoms returned – my breathing and fatigue was overwhelming, and I eventually understood I was experiencing the long-term COVID-19.’
The video shows her pulling up a stool to the kitchen sink, so she can sit down while doing the washing up.
‘Day-to-day tasks at home are really tough,’ she said. ‘It can totally wipe me out just doing basic things.’
She adds: ‘More than anything I think it’s important for people to understand this isn’t always a two-week long virus – it has hugely affected my life and I hope the video and my story encourages those watching to do what they can to prevent infection of the virus.’
Tom explains in the video that when he first realised he had the virus he was ‘much more frightened’ than he expected.
‘But after the first two or three weeks were over, I kinda thought that I was starting to get better,’ he said.
‘And then it was literally just bang, the symptoms came back and a whole load of new ones. The chest pain in particular, is as if i’d just been hit by a train.’
Tom was never admitted to hospital to receive treatment for his condition.
John, 48, a recruiter, also explains in the video how he has been left struggling through every day due to the impact of Covid-19.
He finds the long hours he works now take all his energy, as he has been left with chronic fatigue that can last for two to six weeks.
He used to be an avid gym-goer, training at boxing up to three times a week.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS Medical Director, said: ‘As we continue to learn more about Covid-19, it is clear that a significant minority of patients are suffering the after effects for weeks or months after contracting the virus.
‘New specialist centres across the country will see respiratory consultants, physiotherapists, other specialists and GPs, all help assess, diagnose and treat patients who are suffering, and so it has never been more important that everyone does what they can to reduce the risk of spreading the virus by following the Hands, Face, Space guidance.’
Health Minister Lord Bethell said: ‘The evidence is worrying – COVID-19 is clearly having a long-term impact on some people’s physical and mental health.
‘We are moving quickly to stand up rehabilitation facilities and recovery services. These are becoming more accessible with the opening of specialist clinics across England.
‘The NHS England Long COVID taskforce will have a big impact, bridging between our research and the care people need. But the public must continue to be aware their behaviour has a huge impact on the spread of this virus and they must take the necessary precautions.’
NHS watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) earlier this month announced it will work with doctors to draw up guidance on how to help patients who are suffering from Long Covid.
The move means the illness will be officially written into NHS paperwork and doctors will be given concrete advice about the condition.
WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19?
Most coronavirus patients will recover within a fortnight, suffering a fever, cough and losing their sense of smell or taste for several days.
However, evidence is beginning to show that the tell-tale symptoms of the virus can persist for weeks on end in ‘long haulers’ — the term for patients plagued by lasting complications.
Data from the COVID Symptom Study app, by King’s College London and health company Zoe, suggests one in ten people may still have symptoms after three weeks, and some may suffer for months.
Long term symptoms include:
- Chronic tiredness
- Raised heart rate
- Loss of taste/smell
- Kidney disease
- Mobility issues
- Muscle pains
For those with more severe disease, Italian researchers who tracked 143 people who had been hospitalised with the disease found almost 90 per cent still had symptoms including fatigue two months after first falling unwell.
The most common complaints were fatigue, a shortness of breath and joint pain – all of which were reported during their battle with the illness.
Another study in Italy showed one in ten people who lose their sense of taste and smell with the coronavirus – now recognised as a key sign of the infection – may not get it back within a month.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, involved 187 Italians who had the virus but who were not ill enough to be admitted to hospital.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty has said the longer term impacts of Covid-19 on health ‘may be significant’.
Support groups such as Long Covid have popped up online for those who ‘have suspected Covid-19 and your experience doesn’t follow the textbook symptoms or recovery time’.