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Photo: Harvard Health

In December 2019, people started hearing stories of what would eventually be named COVID-19. As we all know, society was not prepared for the devastating effects of this virus, nor of the ensuing pandemic which took the world by surprise.

While most persons with COVID-19 recover and return to normal health, some patients can have symptoms that can last for weeks or even months after recovery from acute illness. Even people who are not hospitalized and who have mild illness can experience persistent or late symptoms. Multi-year studies are underway to further investigate.

The most commonly reported long-term symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain

Other reported long-term symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with thinking and concentration (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Depression
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Intermittent fever
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)

More serious long-term complications appear to be less common but have been reported. These have been noted to affect different organ systems in the body. These include:

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Respiratory: lung function abnormalities
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Dermatologic: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological: smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems
  • Psychiatric: depression, anxiety, changes in mood

The long-term significance of these effects is not yet known, according to CDC.

What can we learn from this?

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Photo: Royds Withy King

It is still unclear exactly how COVID-19 causes neurological issues. Further research is required in this area to fully comprehend why and how this is happening. It is an ever-expanding area of medical research that will no doubt take many years to fully understand.

The emergence of this new population of survivors who have significant, and potentially long-term, support needs is likely to place already stretched NHS services under increasing pressure as additional treatment and rehabilitation capacity must be created. This is at a time when many hospital based rehabilitation services are re-opening (as many were closed or re-purposed during the pandemic) and are trying to meet the needs of the “backlog” of many brain injury survivors who could not access specialist rehabilitation during the height of the pandemic. The costs/impact of the temporary loss of many specialist rehabilitation services is not yet known.

There are some COVID-19 specific support and rehabilitation services emerging; for example, the Mary Seacole Hospital in Surrey was recently re-organised to specifically provide rehabilitation to those who are recovering from COVID-19. In addition, the NHS has launched the website – Your Covid Recovery – to provide information from experts on how to manage the physical and psychological symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Many Third Sector organisations, such as the Encephalitis Society and Headway, have also developed covid-specific guidance and online support forums for their service users and many are funding research into the area. The hashtag #longcovid is now common place across social media forums and has made it easier for professionals and the public to engage in shared debate on the issues and has fostered the development of a wide number of platforms providing essential information and support to COVID-19 survivors and their families.

Preventing COVID-19

The best way to prevent these long-term complications is to prevent COVID-19. The best strategies for preventing COVID-19 infection in youth and adults are to wear a mask in public places, stay at least 6 feet away from other people, frequently wash your hands, and avoid crowds and confined or poorly ventilated spaces.

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