Most people with COVID-19 recover completely within a few weeks of their first symptoms. However, some people may experience longer-term effects from their infection.
Long COVID is described by the World Health Organisation as an illness occurring after a COVID-19 infection which lasts for at least two months. It is sometimes characterised by symptoms like fatigue, breathing problems, difficulty with concentration or memory and a persistent cough (although the symptoms can differ significantly between people). For a list of possible Long COVID symptoms visit https://www.health.gov.au/health-alerts/covid-19/testing-positive/long-covid
A significant minority of those who became ill with COVID during the pandemic found they had long-lasting symptoms and while many recover, it’s a condition best avoided.
What factors shape one’s risk of Long-COVID?
One major paper gathered data from a long-running study of nurses to find out. Data on the general health of the nurses had been recorded in 2017, including ‘healthy lifestyle factors’ – things like whether they slept more than eight hours a night, didn’t smoke, did vigorous physical exercise each week and had moderate to no alcohol consumption. The study also tracked who had been infected with COVID-19, which turned out to be almost 2000 people,
By looking at which of those 2000 people went on to develop Long COVID, the researchers could analyse the effect of healthy lifestyle factors. They found a significant, dose-dependent relationship between healthy lifestyle and a reduced risk of COVID-19, so much so that people with five or six healthy lifestyle factors were half as likely to get Long COVID as those with none. The more ‘healthy’ you were by this study’s measurement, the lower your risk became.
While you cannot retrospectively engineer a healthy lifestyle to prevent Long COVID, this study may help in identifying people at particular risk of developing long-term symptoms. It highlights the importance of exercise, eating well and regular sleep.
According to the Australian Department of Health, Long COVID is more likely to occur in people who:
- are unvaccinated
- had severe COVID-19, including those who were hospitalised or needed intensive care
- had underlying conditions or disease prior to COVID-19, such as high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Treatment for Long COVID
Recovery times will differ for each person and symptoms may vary over time. Most people will recover within 3 to 4 months. However, the symptoms can last longer for some people.
Unfortunately, because Long COVID is new condition, doctors don’t have many tools for the effective care of these patients. With over 200 reported symptoms, a one-size-fits-all treatment plan does not work.
Researchers around the world are working to develop evidence-based guidelines to help health professionals treat patients. They have also been trialing a care pathway designed around the patient and their individual symptoms.
Inquiry into Long COVID and repeated COVID infections
In Australia an inquiry into Long COVID and repeated COVID-19 infections is underway in Federal Parliament. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said a national plan is being developed and will be finalised when the parliamentary inquiry concludes and the committee has given its advice.
Helping patients with Long COVID
In the meantime, General Practitioners can continue to ask patients about their symptoms and the impact they are having on the patient’s life. GPs may suggest some tests to identify possible causes of symptoms and rule out other conditions.
According to the Australian Department of Health other advice GPs can provide patients includes:
- monitoring and managing symptoms at home, such as through use of a symptom diary
- symptoms that might require medical care (such as new or worsening symptoms, especially if respiratory or potentially cardiac in origin) and where to seek care if you experience these symptoms
- what to expect in the weeks and months following COVID-19
- supports for lifestyle interventions, such as nutrition, physical activity and counselling.
Long COVID clinics
Some states and territories including the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria have opened Long COVID clinics in major cities to help people recover from ongoing symptoms.