A Covid-19 infection for many can be like a bout of the flu, but for others, the effects are much more severe - and in a millions of cases, very long-lasting.
More than two million people in England have suffered with coronavirus symptoms lasting for over 12 weeks beyond the initial illness, which is double the previous estimate for long Covid.
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A new study, which is the largest to date, found that people with ongoing symptoms tended to fall into two distinct categories, with one struggling with respiratory symptoms, and the second with high levels of fatigue.
Confirming previous studies into the illness, the React-2 government-funded research also found that women were most commonly affected, with the prevalence of ongoing symptoms increasing with age.
‘I live with pain and discomfort’
Sharon Schofield, from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, is just one of the millions of people struggling with the debilitating effects of long Covid.
Sharon, 54, tested positive for Covid-19 in October last year, and while her initial symptoms were not too bad, with a few aches and a headache being the worst of it, the after effects gradually became more severe.
Four weeks on from the initial infection, she began suffering with breathing difficulties and pain in her ribs, while a tight chest, heart palpitations, brain fog and dizzy spells are now regular symptoms in her day to day life.
Dealing with breathlessness and fatigue continue to be major problems eight months on and has limited her ability to work to the same level she used to, with regular breaks now needed throughout the day to help control the symptoms.
Sharon explained: “I isolated and rested and felt as though I got through it quite well until four weeks later when I started with breathing difficulties and pain in my rib area. It was very scary.
“It was from that point when I realised other symptoms were also contributory factors to my feeling unwell, namely a tight chest, heart palpitations, brain fog, dizzy spells, unknown rashes, loss of appetite, gastric problems and hair loss, which I wasn't aware at the time were Covid symptoms.
“Some symptoms such as the heart palpitations have improved, but they can and do return occasionally. The brain fog and fatigue is overwhelming at times as I try to carry out a full time job.
“Trying to gauge my limitations and taking regular breaks or a nap at lunchtime helps and my employers are being understanding. If I push myself too much I relapse which seems to be an ongoing theme.
“I live with pain and discomfort to my chest and rib area in varying degrees every day, which is mainly managed with medication.”
Physical activity is a huge struggle
Sharon is a keen fitness fan and has always led a very active lifestyle, regularly taking part in Parkruns and outdoor pursuits over the years.
But the impact of long Covid has forced her to significantly cut down on physical activity, with even the steadiest form of exercise impacting her breathing.
She said: “I have gone from being a fit 54 year old who enjoyed running, including Parkrun and Goodgym member, cycling and generally leading a very active lifestyle to not being able to do anything other than trying to take a short steady walk on the days I'm not too tired.
“Anything that raises my heartbeat, like walking up a slight incline, makes me breathless and can exhaust me for days afterwards. This has impacted massively on my mental and physical health.
“I recently had a few "better days" and I am so desperate to do some activity, so I thought I would try gentle swimming at the local pool.
“But after four steady lengths with a break in between, I became short of breath, dizzy and light-headed and had to be assisted out of the pool to sit on a chair until I recovered. It was so embarrassing!
“I explained that I had long Covid and just wanted to try and swim and they were so lovely and understanding, but I won't be trying it again for a while! Three days after swimming I am still struggling with my breathing and having to take time off work again.”
What is being done to help?
It is currently not known how long symptoms of long Covid may last, but research has found people are still reporting effects more than 36 weeks - or nine months - after infection.
Scientists from the UK’s National Institute for Health Research suggest that ongoing Covid could in fact be four different syndromes, rather than just one illness.
These have broadly been categorised as post-intensive care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome, permanent organ damage and long-term Covid syndrome.
In response to the millions of people dealing with the long-term effects of Covid-19, the NHS has opened more than 80 long Covid assessment services across England and last week published a £100 million plan to expand support.
This includes £30 million to help doctors improve diagnosis and care for long Covid patients.
As for Sharon, she said she was subjected to several blood tests, a chest x-ray and CT scan to try and identify the problem, but everything came back clear.
She explained: “This is a new virus and professionals do not know how to treat it. Some GPs are more understanding than others and will openly admit they have no answers, although one GP told me "you will get better, it's just a matter of time".
“I completed a screening tool in March to be referred to a long Covid clinic but I’ve still not had an appointment yet. So I’ve mainly been doing self help, as in plenty of rest and not overdoing it, pacing myself, and just doing the best I can.
“I think long Covid sufferers need to be taken seriously at an earlier stage, whether or not people were hospitalised, and more funded Covid clinics are needed with professionals to support, advise and offer rehabilitation.
“People returning to work need to be supported and employers need to be aware of the debilitating effects it can have.
“Unfortunately there is no quick fix for myself and many others who are living on this Covid rollercoaster, but I can only hope it will end soon.”
If you have been suffering from the effects of long Covid, you can use the NHS Your Covid Recovery support tool online, which offers support and advice.
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