You Could First Develop These 2 COVID Symptoms a Year Later, New Study Says


One of the biggest mysteries about COVID-19 is how long its effects linger, considering the virus has only been widely circulating for less than two years. But as time goes on, and scientists and medical experts continue to conduct research on long COVID, some clear trends are emerging. A recent study published in The Lancet out of Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic initially, sought to compare symptoms among 1,276 hospitalized COVID patients six months after they got sick to what they were feeling a year after they got COVID. In the biggest study of its kind so far, the researchers found that not only did many people continue to suffer the effects of COVID a year later, but two symptoms in particular were more common than they were at the six-month mark.

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The study showed that 68 percent of hospitalized COVID patients were still experiencing at least one symptom after six months. That rate dropped to just about a half—49 percent—a year after infection, which means half of hospitalized COVID patients recovered from the majority of their symptoms 12 months later. Among those still experiencing the effects of COVID after a year, the most common symptoms were fatigue and muscle weakness, which 20 percent of patients reported, down from 52 percent at six months. Many other symptoms also improved for the hospitalized patients between six months and 12 months post-infection, the researchers found: 17 percent were still experiencing sleep difficulties, down from 27 percent at six months; 11 percent reported hair loss, down from 22 percent; and far fewer patients said they still struggled with smell disorder, the tell-tale COVID symptom, down from 11 percent to 4 percent.

But two symptoms bucked that trend of becoming less commonly reported at the one-year mark compared to at six months. The proportion of patients with dyspnoea, or labored breathing, slightly increased from 26 percent to 30 percent. Additionally, more patients had anxiety or depression a year later than they did at six months, 26 percent compared to 23 percent.

"The effect of long COVID on mental health warrants further and longer-term investigation," the authors said in an accompanying editorial in The Lancet. "The proportion of COVID-19 survivors who had anxiety or depression slightly increased between 6 months and 12 months, and the proportion was much greater in COVID-19 survivors than in controls."

Co-author Xiaoying Gu, MD, of China-Japan Friendship Hospital, said more research needed to be done to understand why psychiatric symptoms were more common a year later compared to six months. "These could be caused by a biological process linked to the virus infection itself, or the body's immune response to it," Gu said in a statement, via MedPage Today. "Or they could be linked to reduced social contact, loneliness, incomplete recovery of physical health or loss of employment associated with illness."

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While it will be some time before these questions are answered, the researchers note in their editorial that it's clear long COVID is causing individuals strife for many months after their body has cleared the infection itself.

"Symptoms such as persistent fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog, and depression could debilitate many millions of people globally. Yet very little is known about the condition," the authors write in the study of long COVID. In their editorial, they stress that "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 individualised, patient-oriented goals, with an appropriately trained workforce involving physical, cognitive, social, and occupational elements."

The authors also point out that long COVID is not just a patient problem, but an issue that will continue to also affect society at large. "The effect on society, from the increased health-care burden and economic and productivity losses, is substantial. Long COVID is a modern medical challenge of the first order," they write in the study, adding in their editorial that "the scientific and medical communities must 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."

RELATED: This Is How Likely You Are to Develop Long COVID—Even If You're Vaccinated.