Long Covid: symptoms, what is the condition, how long does it last - and is there a test?

People with ongoing symptoms of Covid-19 are showing signs of damage to multiple organs four months after infection

More than one million people in the UK who test positive for Covid-19 are still suffering symptoms for months later, new figures show.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that 1.1 million people experienced long Covid during the four weeks to 5 September, up from 970,000 in the previous survey.

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The most common symptom of long Covid is severe fatigue (Photo: Shutterstock)

The figures mark the largest monthly increase since estimates of self-reported long Covid prevalence were first published in April.

Self-reported long Covid is defined as symptoms persisting for more than four weeks after initial infection that cannot be explained by something else.

The condition was also estimated to be adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 706,000 people – around two-thirds of those with self-reported long Covid – with 211,000 reporting that their ability to carry out daily activities had been “limited a lot”, the ONS said.

Fatigue was the most common symptom (experienced by 56% of those with self-reported long Covid), followed by shortness of breath (40%), loss of smell (32%), and difficulty concentrating (31%).

What is long Covid?

Long Covid is a term used to describe those who have recovered from a coronavirus infection but are still experiencing some lasting effects, or the usual symptoms have lasted far longer than normally expected.

Most people who have tested positive for coronavirus, and did not require treatment in intensive care, typically recover from the virus within three weeks.

However, an estimated 10 per cent of people remain unwell beyond this period, while a smaller proportion can experience symptoms for months, according to a study by King’s College.

The study found that some 250,000 people in the UK alone are thought to suffer symptoms for 30 days or more. In many cases, people who suffered with long-lasting effects of the virus were fit, active and healthy.

Scientists have not yet discovered why some people’s recovery from coronavirus is more prolonged, but a weak or absent antibody response, reinfection, inflammatory or other immune reactions, or mental factors, such as post-traumatic stress, could all be contributing factors, the British Medical Journal suggests.

Long-term respiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuropsychiatric sequelae have all been described as symptoms of other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, and these have parallels with some of the effects of long covid.

What are the long-term symptoms?

Typically, the most common symptoms of coronavirus include a cough, high temperature or fever, or loss of taste or smell, but these usually don’t last more than three weeks.

The long-term symptoms that some people experience often vary widely and encompass both physical and neurological effects, with these lasting into weeks and even months in some cases.

The most common symptom of long covid is severe fatigue, while other sufferers have reported breathlessness, a persistent cough, joint pain, muscle aches and mental health problems.

The vast spectrum of symptoms include:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Joint pain
  • Skin rashes
  • Neurocognitive disorders, such as memory loss and lack of concentration
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Struggling to think clearly
  • Digestive problems
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Hearing and eyesight problems
  • Persistent cough
  • Hair loss

Many coronavirus sufferers have reported experiencing hair loss, with a study at the Indiana University School of Medicine identifying it as a potential long-term term symptom.

Dr Natalie Lambert, who conducted the study, said that nearly a third of 1,500 participants reported hair loss as a symptom, while others reported suffering with severe nerve pain, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and blurry vision.

However, this is the results of just one study and more are needed to identify a clear link between coronavirus and hair loss. The side effect is not currently listed as a symptom of Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the NHS.

Some experts have also said that suffering from coronavirus could trigger the stress hormone cortisol to be released, which can signal the hair follicles to shift from the growth phase into a transition phase and result in your hair falling out.

Why is the virus causing long-term effects?

It is believed that while the virus may have been cleared from most of the body, it can continue to linger in some small pockets which can cause longer-lasting symptoms.

As the virus can directly infect a wide variety of cells in the body, it can trigger an overactive immune system which causes damage throughout the body.

It is thought that the immune system does not return to normal after infection and this can cause damage to how the body’s organs function, such as if the lungs become scarred, as has been seen after Sars or Mers infections, which are both types of coronavirus.

Is there a test for long Covid?

Those suffering with long-lasting symptoms after Covid-19 infection should seek advice from a GP to discuss what impact it is having on your day-to-day life

Your doctor may suggest some tests to find out more about your symptoms and rule out other things that could be causing them.

These might include:

  • blood tests
  • checking your blood pressure and heart rate
  • a chest X-ray

You may then be given advice about how to manage and monitor your symptoms at home, or referred to a specialist rehabilitation service or a service that specialises in the specific symptoms you have.

More information on recovery from Covid1-19 can be found on the Your COVID Recovery website.

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