By now you may be already familiar with the term “long haulers,” COVID-19 survivors who battle lingering symptoms for weeks or months after infection.
They can't concentrate at work. They get out of breath crossing the street. They suffer from dizziness, insomnia, confusion, a racing heart or a host of other lasting effects that keep them from getting back to their normal lives.
Now, a new study of 1,733 hospitalized coronavirus patients, published in the journal The Lancet, offers an early look at just how prevalent and long-lasting the condition may be: 3 out of 4 COVID-19 patients still suffered from at least one symptom six months later.
The most common symptom at six months was fatigue and muscle weakness, cited by 63 percent of patients, followed by sleep difficulties (26 percent), and anxiety and depression (23 percent). More than a quarter of the subjects had diminished lung function.
Though continuing symptoms from COVID-19 affect the young and old alike, age does seem to play a role. The Lancet study found that the likelihood of a patient's reporting fatigue or muscle weakness rose 17 percent for each 10-year increase in age.
"Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, we are only beginning to understand some of its long-term effects on patients’ health,” said study author Bin Cao, M.D., director of respiratory and critical care medicine at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing. “Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital and highlights a need for post-discharge care, particularly for those who experience severe infections."
Even patients with mild COVID cases are affected
The Lancet study looked only at patients who were hospitalized. The vast majority, however, did not need a ventilator or spend time in the intensive care unit (ICU), meaning they weren't the most severe cases.
These were the most common symptoms reported by hospitalized COVID-19 patients six months after discharge:
- Fatigue/muscle weakness – 63 percent
- Sleep difficulties – 26 percent
- Anxiety/depression – 23 percent
- Hair loss – 22 percent
- Smell disorder – 11 percent
- Heart palpitations – 9 percent
- Joint pain – 9 percent
- Taste disorder – 7 percent
- Dizziness – 6 percent
Research shows that any patients who enter an ICU — not just those with COVID-19 — are at risk of long-term effects, including diminished lung capacity, sleep problems, cognitive deficits, anxiety and depression. In fact, many hospitals have “post-ICU recovery clinics” dedicated to helping those patients.
At first, that's what doctors thought they were seeing in COVID-19 patients. But they soon realized that those who had only mild cases of the disease (and were never hospitalized) were also reporting long-term symptoms, said Christian Sandrock, M.D., an infectious disease and pulmonary critical care specialist at the University of California, Davis.
"They got COVID, felt crummy at home but were never hospitalized,” he said. “Yet they never fully got better, or new symptoms developed. That subgroup is a good chunk of my patients.”
Consider the case of 63-year-old Marina Oshana, a patient of Sandrock's. A retired philosophy professor in Davis, California, Oshana picked up what she thought was a nasty bug in February 2020 that turned out to be COVID-19.
She remembers feeling exhausted for a few weeks, running a low-grade fever and enduring a “horrific” cough, but symptoms never got so bad that she thought she needed to go to the hospital.
Eleven months later, though, she is still battling fatigue, heart palpitations and a blood oxygen level that sometimes drops to dangerous levels.