Most people hospitalized with COVID-19 who emerged with lingering symptoms from the infection showed little improvement a year later, according to a study seeking to assess the effect of long COVID.
About seven in 10 COVID long haulers continued to face symptoms like fatigue, muscle pain, lack of sleep and breathing difficulties 12 months after hospital discharge, a study led by the U.K.’s National Institute of Health Research found. There was no or very little improvement compared with seven months earlier.
Researchers are working to better understand long COVID and its ramifications amid concern that a growing number of patients with persistent symptoms will strain labor markets and health systems for years to come.
“When you consider that over half a million people in the U.K. have been admitted to hospital as a result of COVID-19, we are talking about a sizable population at risk of persistent ill-health and reduced quality of life,” said Chris Brightling, senior investigator at the institute and professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Leicester.
The study looked at 2,320 adults across the U.K. who had been hospitalized with the disease. All participants were tested five months after being released from the hospital, and about a third returned for the one-year assessment so far.
People with the most severe forms of long COVID reported a higher number of after-effects compared to those with milder symptoms. The evidence also confirmed that those who are female, obese and needed mechanical breathing assistance during their hospital stay were less likely to fully recover.
The study may also lead to new ways of tackling the problem, some of the scientists said. They found higher levels of substances indicating whole-body inflammation and molecules linked with tissue damage in patients with the most severe forms of long COVID. These participants also showed a pattern of brain fog—memory and attention problems, and a decrease in their ability to initiate action.
“The good news is that we have identified some differences in the blood samples of those who are still experiencing the long-term physical and cognitive effects of their COVID-19 hospital admission,” said Louise Wain, one of the paper’s lead authors and GSK/British Lung Foundation chair in respiratory research at the University of Leicester. “These differences give us clues about the potential underlying mechanisms.”
The results, part of a cohort study launched in the summer of 2020 that tracks COVID patients after they leave the hospital, have not yet been reviewed by other researchers.
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