One in five coronavirus sufferers may develop long Covid, figures suggest

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Virus Outbreak Britain
Virus Outbreak Britain

Around one in five people with coronavirus may go on to suffer long Covid, new data suggests.

For the first time, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published figures examining long Covid, finding that a fifth of people have symptoms for five weeks or more while around one in 10 are affected for 12 weeks or more.

Overall, around 186,000 people in private households in England in the week beginning November 22 were living with Covid-19 symptoms that had persisted for between five and 12 weeks, the ONS said.

When looking at symptoms among people five weeks after testing positive for Covid-19, the ONS estimated that 11.5% of respondents were still experiencing fatigue, 11.4% had a cough and 10.1% had a headache.

Some 8.2% were still experiencing a loss of taste while 7.9% still had a loss of smell.

All estimates are based on responses collected as part of the ONS Covid-19 infection survey, which tests thousands of people for coronavirus whether or not they have symptoms.

This data does not include people staying in hospitals, care homes or other institutions.

Sarah MacFadyen head of policy at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: "While it's still early days, these welcome insights helps us to build a better picture of the impact of long Covid.

"What we need to see now is further research into this so we can better support people.

"Shortness of breath is listed as a common symptom and we're hearing from many people via our Post-Covid Hub who are struggling with breathlessness.

"We've heard from many people enduring a long recovery from Covid and some are in a frustrating endless loop of symptoms – feeling better one day and worse the next.

"Long Covid clinics are due to open in England. These need to be rolled out urgently and across the UK so that people can access help and support wherever they live."

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The ONS is also investigating Covid-19 complications by looking at GP records, hospital data, deaths and testing figures.

To date, it has analysed the healthcare records of patients in hospital with Covid-19 until the end of August.

It has compared their complication rate to the end of September with people in hospital but not with Covid-19.

The results suggest that patients in hospital with coronavirus have higher rates of metabolic, cardiovascular, kidney and liver disease compared to those without.

Higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease were particularly notable, the ONS said.

It added: "While these results do not confirm the presence of a causal relationship between Covid-19 hospitalisation and subsequent adverse health events, they are suggestive of a statistical association that warrants further investigation."

A small study published in October from the National Institute for Health Research, which is largely funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, suggested that long Covid may in fact be four different syndromes.

These are permanent organ damage to the lungs and heart, post-intensive-care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome and continuing Covid-19 symptoms.

Dr David Strain, clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant from the University of Exeter Medical School, said of the ONS findings: "These preliminary data are very concerning, suggesting that 10% of people who have experienced Covid are left with residual symptoms after three months – more than twice the rate than we previously thought."

He said the data offered insight into the range of complications occurring, with the risk of a heart attack, stroke or heart failure being nearly 12 times higher in inpatients with coronavirus than in those without.

"These confirm what we have seen working on the Covid wards, that this virus is more than a simple respiratory infection, but is a multi-system disease," he added.

"In some ways, however, people affected by these complications are less unfortunate, as there is a pre-existing clear knowledge base and there are effective treatment strategies for these conditions.

"Of greater concern, are those with the non-specific fatigue, myalgia (muscle pains) and fevers that we have no real understanding of the causes, the risk factors or how to treat it."

He said long Covid was "happening to younger people, more women than men – basically the population that were suggested to be at lower vulnerability from the initial disease, and therefore have been taking roles with higher hazard of coming into contact with the virus".

He added: "The long-term consequences for these individuals, and for the population as a whole, could be potentially devastating in terms of physical manifestations for the individuals but also the economic impact of these individuals being unable to work."

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