Long-term symptoms of coronavirus infection, known as 'long COVID,' affects more than half of COVID-19 survivors, and health care systems should be prepared to treat them, researchers say.
So far, 236 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and many have had lingering physical and mental health problems for six months or longer.
"The burden of poor health in COVID-19 survivors is overwhelming," said study author Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, an assistant research professor at the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering in University Park, Penn. "Among these are the mental health disorders. One's battle with COVID doesn't end with recovery from the acute infection."
To learn more, the researchers reviewed 57 studies that included more than 250,000 unvaccinated adults and children diagnosed with COVID-19 from December 2019 through March 2021.
Most (79%) lived in high-income countries, and the same percentage were hospitalized.
Patients were assessed at one month (short-term), two to five months (intermediate-term), and six or more months (long-term) after recovery. Overall, 50% had long-term symptoms, and rates remained fairly constant from one month through six or more months after their initial illness.
More than half had weight loss, fatigue, fever or pain. About one in five had a decrease in mobility. Nearly one-quarter had difficulty concentrating. About one-third were diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorders. Six in 10 had chest imaging abnormalities. More than one-quarter had breathing problems, and nearly one in five had hair loss or rashes.
Chest pain and palpitations were the most commonly reported heart-related symptoms, and stomach pain, lack of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting were among the commonly reported digestive conditions.
According to co-lead investigator Vernon Chinchilli, "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." Chinchilli is chairman of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Penn.
While previous studies have examined the prevalence of long COVID symptoms, he said this one examined more symptoms in a larger population, including people in high-, middle- and low-income countries.
"Therefore, we believe our findings are quite robust given the available data," Chinchilli said.
Ssentongo said vaccination is the best way to avoid getting COVID-19 and reduce your odds of long COVID even in the presence of a breakthrough infection.
Early intervention will be critical for improving the quality of life for many COVID-19 survivors, the researchers concluded.
The findings were published online Oct. 13 in JAMA Network Open.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on long COVID.
SOURCE: Penn State College of Medicine, news release, Oct. 13, 2021