Research: Characterizing long COVID in an international cohort

From The Lancet:

Published July 15, 2021

Characterizing long COVID in an international

cohort: 7 months of symptoms and their impact

Authors: Hannah E. Davis, Gina S. Assaf, Lisa McCorkell, Hannah Wei, Ryan J. Low, Yochai Re’em, Signe Redfield, Jared P. Austin, and Athena Akrami

Patient-Led Research Collaborative
Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, University College London, London, United Kingdom
Department of Psychiatry, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital / Weill Cornell Medicine, NYC, United States
Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, OR, United States

Background

A significant number of patients with COVID-19 experience prolonged symptoms, known as Long COVID. Few systematic studies have investigated this population, particularly in outpatient settings. Hence, relatively little is known about symptom makeup and severity, expected clinical course, impact on daily functioning, and return to baseline health.

Methods

We conducted an online survey of people with suspected and confirmed COVID-19, distributed via COVID-19 support groups (e.g. Body Politic, Long COVID Support Group, Long Haul COVID Fighters) and social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook). Data were collected from September 6, 2020 to November 25, 2020. We analyzed responses from 3762 participants with confirmed (diagnostic/antibody positive; 1020) or suspected (diagnostic/antibody negative or untested; 2742) COVID-19, from 56 countries, with illness lasting over 28 days and onset prior to June 2020. We estimated the prevalence of 203 symptoms in 10 organ systems and traced 66 symptoms over seven months. We measured the impact on life, work, and return to baseline health.

Findings

For the majority of respondents (>91%), the time to recovery exceeded 35 weeks. During their illness, participants experienced an average of 55.9+/- 25.5 (mean+/-STD) symptoms, across an average of 9.1 organ systems. The most frequent symptoms after month 6 were fatigue, post-exertional malaise, and cognitive dysfunction. Symptoms varied in their prevalence over time, and we identified three symptom clusters, each with a characteristic temporal profile. 85.9% of participants (95% CI, 84.8% to 87.0%) experienced relapses, primarily triggered by exercise, physical or mental activity, and stress. 86.7% (85.6% to 92.5%) of unrecovered respondents were experiencing fatigue at the time of survey, compared to 44.7% (38.5% to 50.5%) of recovered respondents. 1700 respondents (45.2%) required a reduced work schedule compared to pre-illness, and an additional 839 (22.3%) were not working at the time of survey due to illness. Cognitive dysfunction or memory issues were common across all age groups (~88%). Except for loss of smell and taste, the prevalence and trajectory of all symptoms were similar between groups with confirmed and suspected COVID-19.

Interpretation

Patients with Long COVID report prolonged, multisystem involvement and significant disability. By seven months, many patients have not yet recovered (mainly from systemic and neurological/cognitive symptoms), have not returned to previous levels of work, and continue to experience significant symptom burden.

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