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5 risk factors that could lead to a prolonged COVID-19 recovery

Published Oct 21st, 2020 6:06PM EDT
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: Luca Lorenzelli/Adobe

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  • Doctors still can’t explain a medical condition that appears after the initial coronavirus infection. Some COVID-19 survivors experience symptoms for weeks after clearing the virus in what’s being called “Long COVID.”
  • Researchers from the UK have analyzed the COVID-19 experience of more than 4,000 patients and determined five risk factors that favor Long COVID.
  • The data indicates that millions of people worldwide might deal with Long COVID after beating COVID-19.
  • Age, weight, gender, the initial COVID-19 symptoms, and asthma are all risk factors for Long COVID.

Most people who are infected with the novel coronavirus recover. Many are asymptomatic and might never know they’ve had the illness, and many of the confirmed cases are mild to moderate. Around 3% of people die of COVID-19 complications. That puts the global death toll at nearly 1.14 million as of Wednesday morning, out of more than 41.22 million confirmed cases. What the statistics don’t show you is how many people continue to suffer after they recover.

The virus is out of their system, and they test negative after two or three weeks, just like everyone else. But these patients continue to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms for weeks or months after they have been declared cured of COVID-19. The symptoms can mimic the illness, they can vary, and some patients will require medical attention and treatment of other ailments secondary to the initial infection. Doctors are still trying to figure out what causes this so-called “Long COVID” experience and how to treat it. Experts from the UK have already explained the various syndromes that can be observed in Long COVID. A new study from the country now explains the five health risks that can lead to Long COVID and should offer an additional incentive to avoid getting infected.

Researchers at King’s College London announced their study’s findings, which should be published in a non-peer-reviewed format on medRxiv initially.

They analyzed data from 4,182 users of the COVID Symptom Study app who tested positive and logged their health progress in the app. The researchers identified five factors that can lead to Long COVID and also revealed that the incidence of long-haulers could be quite high. Millions of people might be suffering from a form of Long COVID, according to the data.

The researchers say that 1 in 20 people with COVID-19 is likely to suffer symptoms for at least eight weeks. Applying that figure to the more than 41.22 million people who have tested positive so far tells us that more than 2.06 million people might experience Long COVID. But that doesn’t account for the millions of people who got the illness and were never tested, so they’re not part of the statistics.

To put it differently, some 3,500 of the 70,000 Americans that tested positive last Friday might experience Long COVID if the conclusions of this study are accurate. As always with coronavirus studies, this one will need more research, as well as vetting from other peers.

The researchers also indicated that most people in their study recovered from coronavirus in 11 days or less. But 1 in 7 experienced symptoms for four weeks, and 1 in 50 had symptoms for 12 weeks. Applying those estimates to the global COVID-19 caseload tells us that nearly 5.9 million people might have suffered for four weeks, and more than 820,000 might have battled COVID-19 symptoms for nearly three months.

The team discovered that age, weight, gender, asthma, and the initial COVID-19 symptomatology are all risk factors for Long COVID. Only 10% of the people aged 18-49 in the study developed the condition, but the percentage increased to 22% for people over 70. Overweight people are also more likely to get Long COVID, and women are more likely to experience a prolonged recovery. Asthma was also a risk factor associated with Long COVID. The researchers said that people who reported a wider range of initial COVID-19 symptoms were more likely to continue experiencing symptoms after clearing the virus.

The study also divides Long COVID into two separate categories. One of them includes respiratory symptoms (cough and shortness of breath), headaches, and fatigue. The second category seems more dangerous, with symptoms being “clearly multi-system, affecting many parts of the body, including the brain, gut, and heart.”

If these findings can be proven, they could offer a predictive model that might help doctors attempt to prevent Long COVID in at-risk groups and improve the care for COVID-19 survivors who deal with symptoms for several weeks or months after the virus disappears from their systems.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.