New Survey Identifies 98 Long-Lasting Covid Symptoms
Early research helps quantify coronavirus long-haulers’ experiences
There’s a growing number of people around the globe who have survived Covid-19, only to find persistent symptoms lasting weeks or months, and even new effects like hair loss that don’t show up until weeks after they’ve been declared Covid-free.
They’re called long-haulers. Their experiences are poorly understood by the medical community and often dismissed by doctors as psychological issues, writes epidemiologist and Covid survivor Margot Gage Witvliet, PhD, in an article on The Conversation. But the aches, pains, and inconveniences are real, according to Witvliet, who had Covid-19 four months ago and is now suffering from tinnitus, chest pain, and heart-racing.
98 long-haul effects
A new survey of 1,567 long-haulers now shows just how wide-ranging these long-term symptoms are, stretching from sadness and blurry vision to diarrhea and joint pain. Here are the top 10 complaints and the percentage of people reporting each one (many long-haulers report several effects):
66.8% Muscle or body aches
65.1% Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
59.0% Difficulty concentrating or focusing
58.5% Inability to exercise or be active
49.9% Difficulty sleeping
45.6% Memory problems
The survey, which includes self-reported post-Covid symptoms, grew out of a Facebook page called Survivor Corps, a grassroots group devoted to educating Covid-19 long-haulers and connecting them to the medical and research communities.
The findings were analyzed and presented by Natalie Lambert, PhD, an associate research professor in medicine at Indiana University and Wendy Chung, MD, a neurodevelopmental specialist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
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Their paper has not been formally peer-reviewed nor published in a journal, but the findings echo other research and the growing number of documented if anecdotal cases.
In all, survey respondents noted 98 different effects, far more than the 11 common symptoms that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as possible signs that a person has the disease.
Several of the ills are far from benign: tinnitus; cramps; flashes or floaters in vision; night sweats, pain in the hand and feet. A quarter of the effects involved pain.
“The results of this survey suggest that the brain, whole body, eye and skin symptoms are also frequent-occurring health problems for people recovering from Covid-19,” the researchers state.
‘We expected to see a lot of long-term damage’
Studies have shown that Covid-19 infects much more than the respiratory system. By late spring, we knew the disease was affecting the body from head to toe, swelling the brain and compromising many of the body’s organs, and that it could be a blood vessel disease. A new study suggests Covid-19 can infect the thyroid gland, causing excess hormone release.
And as time goes on, studies have begun looking at potential long-term effects.
Heart images taken 10 weeks after people contracted Covid-19 found 78 of 100 had some sort of inflammation or other abnormalities, even if the people had few or no preexisting cardiovascular issues, researchers reported July 27 in the journal JAMA Cardiology.
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“We expected to see a lot of long-term damage from Covid-19: scarring, decreased lung function, decreased exercise capacity,” Ali Gholamrezanezhad, a radiologist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, tells Science Magazine.
“It’s going to take months to a year or more to determine if there are any long-lasting, deleterious consequences of the infection.”
There are ongoing odd effects, too. Beyond enduring pain, hundreds of Covid-19 survivors are experiencing hair loss. “We are seeing patients who had Covid-19 two to three months ago and are now experiencing hair loss,” says Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic. The demoralizing effect was made vivid recently in a Twitter video posted by the celebrity Alyssa Milano, herself recovering — in some ways — from the disease. Khetarpal says, however, that the effects should be temporary.
Answers coming, in months or years
Covid-19 would not be the only virus to cause chronic symptoms. Polio usually causes mild cold or flu-like symptoms. But in about 1% of cases, it damages the neurological system and can leave a person partially paralyzed. Epstein-Barr virus and the herpes virus are both suspected of causing chronic fatigue syndrome, but scientists aren’t sure.
Given the current pandemic is only months old, nobody can say for sure if any of the post-Covid complications will become life-long problems. “It’s going to take months to a year or more to determine if there are any long-lasting, deleterious consequences of the infection,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said last month in an interview on Facebook. “We just don’t know that now. We haven’t had enough time.”
That leaves sufferers like Witvliet, the epidemiologist, in limbo, mostly just resting while wondering when her headaches, brain fog, and extreme fatigue might clear up.
“It’s too soon to say we’re disabled,” she writes. “It’s also too soon to know how long the damage will last.”