Reviews | ‘Long covid’ may haunt 1 in 8 people, Dutch study finds
The term “long covid” came from early patients who called themselves “long haul” when their pandemic illnesses persisted for months. It is now increasingly clear that the long covid presents a potential tidal wave of suffering – afflictions stemming from covid-19 that refuse to go away. The extent of the problem is still unknown. But a new study from the Netherlands offers important clues.
In a paper published in The Lancet, Aranka Ballering and her colleagues at the Lifelines Corona Research Initiative report an effort to uncover the nature and prevalence of post-covid conditions based on a large population sample. The report corrects for those who had certain symptoms before infection with the virus, as well as for disease dynamics in the general population. It helped them dig deeper into the real damage caused by the pandemic. They found that post-covid symptoms persisted in around 1 in 8 people. If true, such a proportion could mean 70 million or more people suffering from long covid worldwide based on the total of over 588 million people infected to date, and probably many more. Some studies have given an even higher prevalence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a recent large study that 1 in 5 adults aged 18 to 64 who had covid, and 1 in 4 aged 65 and older, had at least one persistent health condition related to their covid infection. Yet another survey put the prevalence at 43 percent.
The Dutch study was based on digital questionnaires sent to patients between March 31, 2020 and August 2, 2021 – mostly before delta and omicron waves – and recorded long covid symptoms three to five months after initial infection . The main symptoms bothering people were chest pain, difficulty breathing, lump in throat, pain when breathing, sore muscles, heavy arms or legs, loss of taste and smell, alternating hot and cold sensations, tingling in the extremities and general fatigue. The study found some symptoms that were “not significantly increased” in severity 90-150 days after infection, suggesting they may not be associated with long covid: headache, itchy eyes , dizziness, back pain and nausea.
Other studies have identified a broader constellation of disorders in long-haul aircraft affecting nearly every organ system. What the new study didn’t include, but remains a serious complaint among long-time patients, is cognitive difficulty – the so-called brain fog as a result of covid.
A recent research blueprint released by the Biden administration highlights that long covid is real, but the impact is not yet fully understood. Illness and disability could force many people to work less or differently, affecting the economy and the workplace; the health care burden could be enormous; long covid could exacerbate racial, ethnic and economic disparities. The Biden plan notes that “pandemics such as influenza and polio have had long-term consequences that have persisted for decades.” The same will be true for this pandemic. The challenge will be how to deal with it for years to come.