What is long Covid?
When the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic in March 2020, it was understood that most of the population would experience Covid-19 as a relatively mild, flu-like illness lasting less than a fortnight. In recent months, however, there has been emerging evidence that a growing number of people who contract Covid-19 struggle to shake off the effects of the virus even months after initially falling ill.
The long-lasting effects appear to be affecting people in numerous ways, causing symptoms such as constant fatigue, coughs and loss of taste and smell to shortness of breath, hair loss, and even memory, libido, sleep and concentration problems. Lingering symptoms vary significantly between individuals, but they can leave people feeling unwell for weeks to months after the infection has passed.
What causes long Covid?
With research very much in its early stages, the cause of long Covid is currently unknown, although scientists are studying several theories. They have noted a similarity between long Covid and the ongoing symptoms experienced by survivors of the Ebola virus who were struck with symptoms ranging from joint and muscle pain to headaches and fatigue well after recovering from the virus.
What may link these conditions is how our immune system responds to the threat of an invading virus. To fight off an infection, our immune defences produce large amounts of inflammation that usually settle back to normal once the threat has reduced. However, researchers have found that even once Ebola patients have recovered, they still have persistent inflammation and immune activation – the same might be true for those combatting long Covid.
Another theory is that small pockets of the Covid-19 virus might remain in the body long after the virus has passed, causing continued immune activation. There is some evidence to support this hypothesis, with a study by the University of Manchester having found Covid-19 in the small intestines of seven out of 14 volunteers tested three months after infection.
Who’s at risk?
So far, there’s no clear picture as to who might experience long-lasting coronavirus symptoms – patients of all ages, genders and demographics have reported experiencing long Covid. But there are some factors which may increase your chance of developing it. Researchers have found that people over the age of 70 are much more likely to get long Covid than younger people. Weight also appears to play a role, with those developing long Covid usually having a slightly higher than average BMI than those who don’t. And, while men are likelier to become hospitalised with Coronavirus, it’s women who are more likely to experience enduring symptoms.
How do I know if I have long Covid?
According to NICE, a patient may be diagnosed with long Covid if they continue to experience the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 for more than 12 weeks following their positive test. It remains unclear how long individuals will suffer from symptoms and the prolonged health effects that some patients experience can have a terrible impact on their lives, making regular daily tasks seem intolerable.
The NICE guidelines are yet to outline any treatments for long COVID. Recovery from any illness, especially an infectious one, can take time, and with Coronavirus still being a very new condition, there is a lot of research to be gathered, shared and understood. NICE do recommend self-management strategies such as setting realistic goals for each day and accessing online support groups to help you maintain a positive mindset.
If you’ve recovered from Covid-19 but you’re still experiencing symptoms, you may like to consider visiting your GP to help get you back on the road to recovery. Depending on your symptoms, they may order some routine tests to gather more information and rule out any other conditions before creating a clear pathway for treating and managing your specific symptoms.
Enjoyed this? Sign up to our mailing list for weekly tips, tricks and skinspiration from our medical director, Dr Sophie Shotter.
Disclaimer: Please be aware that results and benefits may vary from patient to patient taking into consideration factors such as age, lifestyle and medical history.