What is Long Covid – and could you be affected?
Discover more about the newly emerging condition...
‘Long Covid’ refers to the ongoing ill-health experienced by some people after the initial, or acute, Covid-19 infection is over. It’s also known as post-Covid-19 syndrome.For most people, Covid-19 is a short illness. But some people can experience symptoms for weeks or months after the initial illness, even if they were previously healthy.
As Long Covid is a newly emerging condition, some sufferers have found it hard to get a diagnosis and the help they need. But now there’s more research under way to help doctors understand the illness and find the best ways to treat it.
How many people get Long Covid?
The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in five people who have had Covid-19 experience symptoms that last for at least five weeks, while one in 10 experience symptoms for 12 weeks or more. It’s hard to say exactly how many people are affected as not everyone reports their symptoms or sees their GP.
Also, in a newly emerging phenomenon, some people with Long Covid symptoms may never have had a positive test as they either had Covid-19 before widespread testing was available, or received a false negative.
What are the symptoms of Long Covid?
We’re all individuals and that’s especially true when it comes to Long Covid, which has a wide range of symptoms. Covid-19 can affect many different parts of the body, including the lungs, heart and circulatory system, kidneys, liver and digestive system.
For some sufferers, Long Covid can involve mild symptoms that come and go, but others may find even everyday activities such as climbing the stairs or cooking dinner absolutely exhausting.
It can have a major impact on their lifestyles, health and mental wellbeing and they may be unable to return to work.
Common Long Covid symptoms include:
Fatigue, or extreme tiredness
Joint and muscle pain
Loss of taste or smell
Depression and anxiety
‘Brain fog’ or not being able to concentrate and think straight
Less common symptoms include sickness and diarrhoea, dizziness or problems with balance, and skin rashes.
Another long-term impact of Covid-19 (unrelated to ‘long Covid’) is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Survivors, especially those who needed intensive medical support, are at a higher risk of developing PTSD, from their experiences in hospital, the risk of death, or from being isolated from loved ones.
The charity PTSD UK are experiencing a surge in cases due to Covid-19. You can read more about this in our article on dealing with mental health problems during the pandemic.
Who is most likely to get Long Covid?
Long Covid can affect any one of us – even young and fit people can get it, and there have been cases of children who’ve been diagnosed with the condition. You don’t even have to have been seriously ill with Covid-19, although those who have been hospitalised are most likely to experience ongoing symptoms.
For those who have a milder illness, data from the Covid Symptom Study (which uses the ZOE app to track the symptoms of more than 4 million people) suggests you are more likely to develop Long Covid if you are:
Female – more women than men report Long Covid symptoms, although this could be because women are generally more likely to monitor their health than men.
In an older age group – the risk of developing Long Covid seems to increase with age.
Have a wide range of Covid-19 symptoms during the first week of your illness.
What are the causes of Long Covid?
At the moment, no one’s sure what causes Long Covid but there is a lot of research going on.
Some scientists think it could be a form of post-viral syndrome, similar to the after-effects of other viruses such as flu, or an autoimmune response caused by over-stimulation of the immune system.
Covid-19 is known to increase the risk of blood clots, so another explanation for Long Covid symptoms might be that the virus damages the tiny blood vessels that supply the body with oxygen and nutrients.
What should I do if I think I have Long Covid?
If you have unusual symptoms lasting a month or more you should contact your GP. Remember you can be diagnosed with Long Covid even if you didn’t have a positive Covid-19 test when you were first ill.
The test can produce false negatives and testing wasn’t widespread early on in the pandemic. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest blood tests, a chest X-ray and ECG, or heart trace, to assess your condition and rule out other causes.
What treatment is available?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms and the results of any tests. For example, if an X-ray shows lung damage, you may be referred to a chest clinic for specialist support. In some areas, you may be able to attend a special clinic dedicated to treating Long Covid – there are plans to open more of these clinics around the country.
Some surprising treatments are on offer too. For example, the English National Opera is offering weekly online singing exercises that some sufferers are finding helps their breathing and calms anxiety.
As research helps us understand more about Covid-19 and Long Covid, more information and treatment options will become available. If you were admitted to hospital with Covid-19, you may be asked to take part in the Post-hospitalisation Covid-19 study (PHOSP-COVID), which aims to help with this research.
Self-help for Long Covid
There’s a lot you can do to help yourself recover as quickly as possible:
Pace yourself – if you’re feeling exhausted, don’t take on too much and schedule rest times during the day. This will also help if you have ‘brain fog’ and concentration problems.
Avoid over-exertion. Doctors have noticed that patients who try to do too much exercise make less progress. However, try to do some gentle exercise such as a walk when you’re up to it.
Eat a healthy diet. Why not rustle up some of our simple and nutritious recipes.
Sleep well – read our advice on how to get a good night’s sleep.
If Long Covid is making you depressed or anxious, our article on how to improve your mental health has lots of tips.
You can find more advice on the NHS Your Covid Recovery website.
How long will it take to recover?
The time it takes to recover from Long Covid varies between individuals, and it’s hard to put a timescale on it as it’s such a new condition. The good news is that evidence from the Covid Symptom Study suggests that most people with Long Covid are getting better over time.
How can I avoid getting Long Covid?
The only sure way is not to get infected with Covid-19 in the first place. Follow all the government advice to the letter, such as washing your hands regularly, staying at home as much as possible and keeping at least two metres from away others when you do go out.
Medically reviewed by Cheryl Lythgoe on 17th February 2021.