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'Long COVID' impacts more than half of all virus survivors, study finds

Experts say symptoms can persist for more than six months after recovery

Woman with COVID-19 wearing mask and staring out window
Photo (c) Halfpoint Images - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Penn State explored just how long consumers may be dealing with COVID-19-related symptoms. 

According to their findings, “long COVID,” or experiencing symptoms related to the virus long-term, affects more than half of all patients. They explained that it’s not uncommon for COVID-19 survivors to experience physical and psychological symptoms for up to six months after recovery

“These findings confirm what many health care workers and COVID-19 survivors have been claiming, namely, that adverse health effects from COVID-19 can linger,” said researcher Vernon Chinchilli. “Although previous studies have examined the prevalence of long COVID symptoms among patients, this study examined a larger population, including people in high-, middle-, and low-income countries, and examined many more symptoms. Therefore, we believe our findings are quite robust given the available data.” 

How common is long COVID?

For the study, the researchers analyzed nearly 60 earlier reports that included information on over 250,000 people who were infected with COVID-19 between December 2019, and March 2021. They tracked the participants’ health outcomes at three junctures: one month after infection, two to five months post-infection, and six or more months after infection. 

Ultimately, experiencing coronavirus-related symptoms for more than six months after infection was common in half of all the participants involved in the study. The researchers identified several serious side effects as a result of a COVID-19 infection, including lung abnormalities, digestive issues, neurological concerns, skin conditions, mobility issues, cardiovascular issues, and disruption to general well-being. 

COVID-19 attacks the immune system

While it remains unclear why these symptoms persist for so long after infection, the researchers explored several potential links. For starters, they explained that the virus may lead to a serious attack on the immune system. They also noted that the virus can stay alive in the nervous system, which may be the cause of many of the neurological symptoms. Additionally, when COVID-19 antibodies produce autoantibodies, these cells can attack the body’s tissues rather than the virus. 

“Our study was not designed to confirm COVID-19 as the sole cause of these symptoms,” said researcher Dr. Paddy Ssentongo. “It is plausible that symptoms reported by patients in some of the studies examined were due to some other causes.” 

The researchers hope these findings highlight the long-term impact that COVID-19 has on those who become infected. In order to keep consumers safe and healthy long-term, they say the goal for public health officials should be prioritizing infection prevention. 

“The burden of poor health in COVID-19 survivors is overwhelming,” Dr. Ssentongo said. “Among these are the mental health disorders. One’s battle with COVID doesn’t end with recovery from the acute infection. Vaccination is our best ally to prevent getting sick from COVID-19 and to reduce the chance of long-COVID even in the presence of a breakthrough infection.” 

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