A year and a half into the pandemic, the condition known as Long COVID continues to stump medically. A significant number of patients develop symptoms in the long run after taking COVID-19, but it has not been clear why this happens, who is likely to get sick or even how many people continue to suffer.
A great new study can help form some answers to those questions. Consistent with previous estimates, it finds that nearly a quarter of people infected with the virus develop at least one persistent health problem, and that most Long COVID symptoms are more commonly reported by women than by men.
The report was published on June 15 by non-profit health care provider FAIR Health and was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. FAIR Health analyzed records of private health care requests for nearly 2 million people diagnosed with COVID-19 by 2020. The people in the study varied in age from children to the elderly; some 53% were female and 47% were male.
Twenty-three percent of them reported one or more health problems at least 30 days after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The most common include pain, breathing problems, high cholesterol, malaise and / or fatigue and high blood pressure. But the reported post-COVID symptoms were very varied, ranging from depression and anxiety to skin conditions to heart problems and gastrointestinal distress.
Patients with severe cases of COVID-19 were more likely to report a post-COVID situation, but the study shows that people can develop COVID Long even after a mild initial case of COVID-19. Half of the people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 after being released developed at least a number that lasted 30 or more days, followed by 27.5% of people who were symptomatic but not hospitalized and 19% of those people whose claims have never reported an acute COVID -19 symptom. This finding rejects the idea that healthy, young people will do well after a COVID-19 infection — even for those who have almost no symptoms, there may be lasting consequences.
While patients of all ages and genders reported post-COVID conditions, their specific symptoms varied slightly depending on demographics. For example, gastrointestinal problems were the third most common symptom among pediatric patients, but the 11th most common among patients aged 40 to 49 years. And high cholesterol was the second most common symptom among patients aged 50 to 59 years, but the 13th most common among children.
Symptoms also vary by gender. Previous studies have suggested that Long COVID is more common among women than men, and new research supports this conclusion. Fifty-eight percent of people who developed post-COVID symptoms were female, and most of the symptoms analyzed appeared more often in women. But certain problems, such as heart disease and kidney failure, have affected men significantly more often.
Death among people in the study was quite rare. Less than 0.5% of patients who were hospitalized for COVID-19 and then discharged died more than 30 days after their initial diagnosis; the number was even lower among non-hospitalized and asymptomatic patients. Regardless of the severity of their initial case, men were more likely to die during the study period than women, consistent with general trends COVID-19.
Patients with certain chronic conditions, including cancer, HIV, and kidney disease, were excluded from the study, given their likelihood of having health problems unrelated to COVID-19 after diagnosis. But other pre-existing conditions that have not disqualified an individual from inclusion, such as substance use, asthma, developmental disability and dementia, appear to increase the risk of dying or developing a serious post-COVID situation. It is also possible, the authors write, that certain post-COVID symptoms — such as high blood pressure and cholesterol — were present but not detected in some patients before they had COVID-19, and were collected only when they sought medical attention after diagnosis.
There are also several unknowns about the Long COVID, including – mostly – why it happened. Some experts believe that the remnants of the virus remain in the systems of some people, causing lasting health problems. Another theory is that COVID-19 boosts the immune systems of some people in overdrive, essentially causing the body to attack itself. More research is needed to say for sure, and to develop it treatments for Long COVID.
The new report presents several new questions. Why, for example, do symptoms vary so much by age and gender? But it also offers robust estimates on the prevalence of Long COVID and what is likely to be experimental-findings that could offer a jumping point for future studies.