Long COVID Symptoms Can Persist for More Than 1 Year, Study Shows

Megan Brooks

August 27, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Nearly one half of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 suffer at least one lingering symptom 1 year after discharge, according to the largest study yet to assess the dynamic recovery of a group of COVID-19 survivors 12 months after the illness.

The most common lingering symptoms are fatigue and muscle weakness. One third continue to have shortness of breath.

Overall, at 12 months, COVID-19 survivors had more problems with mobility, pain or discomfort, and anxiety or depression, and had lower self-assessment scores of quality of life than matched COVID-free peers, the investigators report. 

The study was published online August 26 in The Lancet.

"While most had made a good recovery, health problems persisted in some patients, especially those who had been critically ill during their hospital stay," Bin Cao, MD, from the National Center for Respiratory Medicine at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and Capital Medical University, both in Beijing, said in a Lancet news release.

"Our findings suggest that recovery for some patients will take longer than one year, and this should be taken into account when planning delivery of healthcare services post-pandemic," Cao said.

Long COVID is a modern medical challenge of the first order

"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the need to understand and respond to long COVID is increasingly pressing," says a Lancet editorial.

"Symptoms such as persistent fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog, and depression could debilitate many millions of people globally. Long COVID is a modern medical challenge of the first order," it reads.

Study Details

Cao and colleagues studied 1276 COVID-19 patients (median age 59; 53% men) discharged from a hospital in Wuhan, China, between January 7 and May 29, 2020. The patients were assessed at 6 and 12 months from the date they first experienced COVID-19 symptoms.

Many symptoms resolved over time, regardless of the severity of illness. Yet 49% of patients still had at least one symptom 12 months after their acute illness, down from 68% at the 6-month mark, the authors report.

Fatigue and muscle weakness were the most commonly reported symptoms seen in 52% of patients at 6 months and 20% at 12 months. Compared with men, women were 1.4 times more likely to report fatigue or muscle weakness.

Patients treated with corticosteroids during the acute phase of COVID-19 were 1.5 times as likely to experience fatigue or muscle weakness after 12 months compared with those who had not received corticosteroids.

Thirty percent of patients reported dyspnea at 12 months, slightly more than at 6 months (26%). Dyspnea was more common in the most severely ill patients needing a ventilator during their hospital stay (39%) compared with those who did not need oxygen treatment (25%).

At the 6-month check, 349 study participants underwent pulmonary function tests and 244 of those patients completed the same test at 12 months.

Spirometric and lung volume parameters of most of these patients were within normal limits at 12 months. But lung diffusion impairment was observed in about 20% to 30% of patients who had been moderately ill with COVID-19 and as high as 54% in critically ill patients. 

Compared with men, women were almost three times as likely to have lung diffusion impairment after 12 months.

Of 186 patients with abnormal lung CT scan at 6 months, 118 patients had a repeat CT scan at 12 months. The lung imaging abnormality gradually recovered during follow-up, yet 76% of the most critically ill patients still had ground glass opacity at 12 months.

Mental Health Hit

Among those patients who had been employed full- or part-time before catching COVID, the majority had returned to their original job (88%) and most had returned to their pre-COVID-19 level of work (76%) within 12 months.

Among those who did not return to their original work, 32% cited decreased physical function, 25% were unwilling to do their previous job, and 18% were unemployed.

As shown in multiple other studies, COVID-19 can take a toll on mental health. In this cohort, slightly more patients reported anxiety or depression at 12 months than at 6 months (23% vs 26%), and the proportion was much greater than in matched community-dwelling adults without COVID-19 (5%).

Compared with men, women were twice as likely to report anxiety or depression.

"We do not yet fully understand why psychiatric symptoms are slightly more common at 1 year than at 6 months in COVID-19 survivors," study author Xiaoying Gu, PhD, from the Institute of Clinical Medical Sciences, China-Japan Friendship Hospital, said in the news release.

"These could be caused by a biological process linked to the virus infection itself, or the body's immune response to it. Or they could be linked to reduced social contact, loneliness, incomplete recovery of physical health or loss of employment associated with illness. Large, long-term studies of COVID-19 survivors are needed so that we can better understand the long term physical and mental health consequences of COVID-19," Gu said.

The authors caution that the findings represent a group of patients from a single hospital in China and the cohort included only a small number of patients who had been admitted to intensive care (94 of 1276; 7.4%).

The Lancet editorial urges the scientific and medical community to "collaborate to explore the mechanism and pathogenesis of long COVID, estimate the global and regional disease burdens, better delineate who is most at risk, understand how vaccines might affect the condition, and find effective treatments via randomized controlled trials."

"At the same time, health-care providers must acknowledge and validate the toll of the persistent symptoms of long COVID on patients, and health systems need to be prepared to meet individualized, patient-oriented goals, with an appropriately trained workforce involving physical, cognitive, social, and occupational elements," the editorial states.

"Answering these research questions while providing compassionate and multidisciplinary care will require the full breadth of scientific and medical ingenuity. It is a challenge to which the whole health community must rise," it concludes.

Lancet. Published online August 26, 2021. Article, Editorial

The study was funded by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Innovation Fund for Medical Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Key Research and Development Program of China, Major Projects of National Science and Technology on New Drug Creation and Development of Pulmonary Tuberculosis, the China Evergrande Group, the Jack Ma Foundation, Sino Biopharmaceutical, the Ping An Insurance (Group), and the New Sunshine Charity Foundation. The full list of author disclosures is available with the original article.

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