Long COVID: Half of patients hospitalised have at least one symptom two years on
Two years on, half of a group of patients hospitalised with COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, still have at least one lingering symptom, according to a study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. The study followed 1192 participants in Wuhan infected with SARS-CoV-2 during the first phase of the pandemic in 2020.
While physical and mental health generally improved over time, the study found that COVID-19 patients still tend to have poorer health and quality of life than the general population. This is especially the case for participants with long COVID, who typically still have at least one symptom including fatigue, shortness of breath and sleep difficulties two years after initially falling ill.1
The long-term health impacts of COVID-19 have remained largely unknown, as the longest follow-up studies to date have spanned around one year.2 The lack of pre-COVID-19 health status baselines and comparisons with the general population in most studies has also made it difficult to determine how well patients with COVID-19 have recovered.
Lead author Professor Bin Cao, of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital, China, said, “Our findings indicate that for a certain proportion of hospitalised COVID-19 survivors, while they may have cleared the initial infection, more than two years is needed to recover fully from COVID-19. Ongoing follow-up of COVID-19 survivors, particularly those with symptoms of long COVID, is essential to understand the longer course of the illness, as is further exploration of the benefits of rehabilitation programs for recovery. There is a clear need to provide continued support to a significant proportion of people who’ve had COVID-19, and to understand how vaccines, emerging treatments and variants affect long-term health outcomes.”3
The authors of the new study sought to analyse the long-term health outcomes of hospitalised COVID-19 survivors, as well as specific health impacts of long COVID. They evaluated the health of 1192 participants with acute COVID-19 treated at Jin Yin-tan Hospital in Wuhan, China, between 7 January and 29 May 2020, at six months, 12 months and two years.
Assessments involved a six-minute walking test, laboratory tests and questionnaires on symptoms, mental health, health-related quality of life, if they had returned to work and healthcare use after discharge. The negative effects of long COVID on quality of life, exercise capacity, mental health and healthcare use were determined by comparing participants with and without long COVID symptoms. Health outcomes at two years were determined using an age-, sex- and comorbidities-matched control group of people in the general population with no history of COVID-19 infection.
Two years after initially falling ill, patients with COVID-19 are generally in poorer health than the general population, with 31% reporting fatigue or muscle weakness and 31% reporting sleep difficulties. The proportion of non-COVID-19 participants reporting these symptoms was 5% and 14%, respectively.
COVID-19 patients were also more likely to report a number of other symptoms including joint pain, palpitations, dizziness and headaches. In quality of life questionnaires, COVID-19 patients also more often reported pain or discomfort (23%) and anxiety or depression (12%) than non-COVID-19 participants (5% and 5%, respectively).
Around half of study participants had symptoms of long COVID at two years, and reported lower quality of life than those without long COVID. In mental health questionnaires, 35% reported pain or discomfort and 19% reported anxiety or depression. The proportion of COVID-19 patients without long COVID reporting these symptoms was 10% and 4% at two years, respectively. Long COVID participants also more often reported problems with their mobility (5%) or activity levels (4%) than those without long COVID (1% and 2%, respectively).
The authors acknowledged limitations to their study, such as moderate response rate; slightly increased proportion of participants who received oxygen; it was a single centre study from early in the pandemic.
1. - National Institute for Health and Care Excellence - Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network - Royal College of General Practitioners. COVID-19 rapid guideline: managing the long-term effects of COVID-19. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng188
2. - Soriano - JB Murthy - S Marshall - JC Relan - P Diaz JV - on behalf of the WHO Clinical Case Definition Working Group on Post-COVID-19 Condition. A clinical case definition of post-COVID-19 condition by a Delphi consensus. Lancet Infect Dis. 2021; 22: e102-e107
3. - Huang L - Yao Q - Gu X - et al. 1-year outcomes in hospital survivors with COVID-19: a longitudinal cohort study. Lancet. 2021; 398: 747-758
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