One year on from the UK’s first lockdown, Cheryl Lythgoe, Matron at Benenden Health, answers common questions around Long Covid: what it is, what the symptoms are, and how you can look after yourself if you’re suffering with it.
‘Long Covid’ refers to the ongoing ill-health experienced by some people after the initial, or acute, Covid-19 infection is over. It’s also known as post-Covid-19 syndrome.
For most people, Covid-19 is a short illness, but some people can experience symptoms for weeks or months after the initial illness, even if they were previously healthy.
How many people get Long Covid?
The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in five people who have had Covid-19 experience symptoms that last for at least five weeks, while one in 10 experience symptoms for 12 weeks or more. It’s hard to say exactly how many people are affected as not everyone reports their symptoms or sees their GP. Also, in a newly emerging phenomenon, some people with Long Covid symptoms may never have had a positive test as they either had Covid-19 before widespread testing was available, or received a false negative.
What are the symptoms of Long Covid?
We’re all individuals and that’s especially true when it comes to Long Covid, which has a wide range of symptoms. For some sufferers, Long Covid can involve mild symptoms that come and go, but others may find even everyday activities such as climbing the stairs or cooking dinner absolutely exhausting. It can have a major impact on their lifestyles, health and mental wellbeing and they may be unable to return to work.
Physical symptoms can include fatigue or extreme tiredness, breathlessness, a cough, chest pain, joint and muscle pain and loss of taste or smell, whereas mental symptoms include depression and anxiety and not being able to concentrate and think straight. Less common symptoms include sickness and diarrhoea, dizziness or problems with balance, and skin rashes.
Who is most likely to get Long Covid?
Long Covid can affect any one of us – even young and fit people can get it, and there have been cases of children who’ve been diagnosed with the condition. You don’t even have to have been seriously ill with Covid-19, although those who have been hospitalised are most likely to experience ongoing symptoms.
For those who have a milder illness, data from the Covid Symptom Study (which uses the ZOE app to track the symptoms of more than four million people) suggests you are more likely to develop Long Covid if you are:
- Female – more women than men report Long Covid symptoms, although this could be because women are generally more likely to monitor their health than men
- In an older age group – the risk of developing Long Covid seems to increase with age
- Have a wide range of Covid-19 symptoms during the first week of your illness
- Are overweight
- Have asthma
What are the causes?
At the moment, no one’s sure what causes Long Covid but research is ongoing.
Some scientists think it could be a form of post-viral syndrome, similar to the after-effects of other viruses such as flu, or an autoimmune response caused by over-stimulation of the immune system. Covid-19 is known to increase the risk of blood clots, so another explanation for Long Covid symptoms might be that the virus damages the tiny blood vessels that supply the body with oxygen and nutrients.
What should I do if I think I have Long Covid?
If you have unusual symptoms lasting a month or more, you should contact your GP. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest blood tests, a chest X-ray and ECG, or heart trace, to assess your condition and rule out other causes.
What treatment is available?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms and the results of any tests. In some areas, you may be able to attend a special clinic dedicated to treating Long Covid – there are plans to open more of these clinics around the country. Some surprising treatments are on offer too. For example, the English National Opera is offering online singing exercises that some sufferers are finding helps their breathing and calms anxiety.
As research helps us understand more about Covid-19 and Long Covid, more information and treatment options will become available. If you were admitted to hospital with Covid-19, you may be asked to take part in the Covid-19 study to help with this research.
How long will it take to recover?
The time it takes to recover from Long Covid varies between individuals, and it’s hard to put a timescale on it as it’s such a new condition. The good news is that evidence from the Covid Symptom Study suggests that most people with Long Covid are getting better over time.
How can I avoid getting Long Covid?
The only sure way is not to get infected with Covid-19 in the first place. Follow all the government advice to the letter, such as washing your hands regularly, staying at home as much as possible and keeping at least two metres from away others when you do go out.
Looking after yourself if you have Long Covid
- Pace yourself – if you’re feeling exhausted, don’t take on too much and schedule rest times during the day. This will also help if you have concentration problems
- Avoid over-exertion. Doctors have noticed that patients who try to do too much exercise make less progress. However, try to do some gentle exercise such as a walk when you’re up to it
- Eat a healthy diet. Why not rustle up some of our tasty and nutritious recipes
- Sleep well – read our advice on how to get a good night’s sleep
- If Long Covid is making you depressed or anxious, our article on how to improve your mental health has lots of tips
Benenden Health has more than 800,000 members and provides a range of discretionary healthcare services open to all, including a Covid-19 hub on its website with tips and information about how to support your mental health during the pandemic.