There is still much to learn about coronavirus, given that it seems to affect everyone differently. While some people might lose their sense of smell or taste, others experience more severe symptoms. Some require hospital treatment, while others can be asymptomatic. The recovery periods vary vastly, too. Some take a week or so, others are still suffering months later with ongoing symptoms that have been termed "long COVID". Thankfully, recent progress into finding a coronavirus vaccine looks promising, but research into the lasting effects of the virus is, at this stage, less conclusive. So, what is long COVID and how does it affect the body?
What Is Long COVID?
The National Institute of Care Excellence (NICE) describes three different types of COVID-19, depending on how long the symptoms last. “Acute COVID-19 infection” refers to symptoms that last for up to 4 weeks. “Ongoing symptomatic COVID-19” denotes signs and symptoms that continue beyond 4 weeks, for up to 12 weeks. And lastly, "Post-COVID-19 syndrome" describes symptoms that continue for more than 12 weeks, and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis. This is what's otherwise known as long-covid.
The symptoms of long COVID can be similar to those experienced in the first few weeks, ranging from muscle ache, fatigue and breathlessness, to neurological symptoms, as the BBC reports.
Who Is Most Likely To Get Long COVID?
As the NHS reports: “A study from King’s College London found 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 long COVID, with one in 10 still unable to shake off the side effects eight weeks after infection.”
There are, of course, exceptions to the groups outlined above. Tennis player Grigor Dimitrov, who is 29 years old, contracted the virus in June, but told BBC Sport that symptoms "lingered for a while" and he was still experiencing fatigue in September, admitting that he probably wasn't fit to play in the US Open (although he tested negative for the virus by the time of the tournament).
On Nov. 13, BBC Sport reported that 85 Olympic and Paralympic athletes in England have tested positive for coronavirus, and according to data released by the English Institute of Sport (EIS), 10% of them had symptoms lasting more than 30 days. The athletes with long-term symptoms are being studied by the EIS, with particular focus on their hearts, lungs, immune systems and psychological profiles.
This 10% seems to reflect the general population too, as a study by King’s College London reports that an estimated 250,000 people in the UK experience symptoms that last more than 30 days after their initial diagnoses of COVID-19.
Is Help Available For Those With Long COVID?
On Nov. 15, the NHS announced it had assigned £10 million to fund a network of more than 40 clinics specialising in long COVID. The clinics are due to open from the end of November, and will bring together doctors, nurses, therapists and other NHS staff to help those suffering with ongoing coronavirus symptoms. Patients can be referred for the services by their GP or health professional.
NHS Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “Long COVID is already having a very serious impact on many people’s lives and could well go on to affect hundreds of thousands. That is why, while treating rising numbers of patients who are sick with the virus and many more who do not have it, the NHS is taking action to address those suffering ongoing health issues.
“These pioneering ‘long COVID’ clinics will help address the very real problems being faced by patients today, while the taskforce will help the NHS develop a greater understanding of the lasting effects of coronavirus.”