For months, people experiencing long Covid fought for their symptoms to be recognised. Now, it’s thought two million people in England may be living with the condition.
People with long Covid can experience symptoms weeks or months after the infection has gone. The latest findings, from Imperial College London’s React-2 study, suggest more than a third of people who’ve had coronavirus report symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.
Clinicians are still learning more about long Covid, but here’s what we know so far and what you should do next if you think you’re affected.
What are the symptoms of long Covid?
People who had mild symptoms at first can still have long-term problems, says the NHS. The signs of long Covid vary from person to person, but the NHS now lists the following common symptoms:
extreme tiredness (fatigue)
shortness of breath
chest pain or tightness
problems with memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
pins and needles
depression and anxiety
feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
a high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
In August 2020, an all-party parliamentary group on Covid heard from 550 people who suffered continuing problems due to Covid-19. MPs identified 16 common symptoms of long Covid experienced by the people they spoke to.
Some of these symptoms, which aren’t included in the NHS list above, include: hallucinations, chills, hair loss, and purple toes.
Who is at risk of long Covid?
The latest research from Imperial suggests long Covid is higher among women, people who are overweight or obese, those who smoke, people who live in deprived areas, or those who had been admitted to hospital.
The reason women might be more susceptible to long Covid might lie in differences in how our immune systems work – or that’s what scientists hypothesise, anyway. Research is needed to look into this.
In a 2016 review on the differences in immune responses between males and females, professor Sabra Klein, of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and professor Katie Flanagan, of Monash University, said females’ strong immune responses result in faster clearance of pathogens and greater vaccine efficacy compared to males. But it also contributes to females’ increased susceptibility to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
What’s the effect of vaccines on long Covid?
The coronavirus vaccines may ease symptoms of long Covid, research suggests, with more than half of participants reporting improvements after a jab.
In the study, more than half (57%) of participants reported an overall improvement in their symptoms, with 24% reporting no difference and 19% deteriorating. However, it’s worth noting that only 3% said all of their symptoms had worsened, and this was often transiently.
What are the treatments for long Covid?
While there’s currently no specific treatment for long Covid, it’s important to still visit your GP. This is because they can conduct tests – including checking your blood pressure, plus referring you for blood tests and a chest x-ray – to rule out any other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
Your GP can also provide you with advice on managing symptoms in your day-to-day life. This advice is also reiterated on the NHS’ Covid recovery website, which has tips on everything from looking after your mental health after illness, to getting back to work when you’re able to.
Those with long Covid symptoms are being advised to follow the three P’s Principle – Pace, Plan and Prioritise – to conserve your energy when going about your daily activities. This means giving yourself permission to slow down, planning activities so the most tiring tasks are spread throughout the week, and prioritising, to ensure you’ve got a mix of necessary tasks and activities that will boost your mental health each day.
GPs can also refer patients on to other specialist services. A network of 60 specialist NHS England long Covid clinics has launched to support those with symptoms. The government also announced 15 long Covid clinics specifically for children will be opening, as part of a £100 million expansion of care for those suffering from the condition. However, some people have reported difficulties accessing the clinics due to where they live.
It may help to connect with others experiencing long Covid, to know that you’re not alone. There are dozens of Facebook groups for people with long Covid, some with thousands of members.