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14:00 · 23 July 2021

Long COVID – What are the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection?

The longer the pandemic lasts, the more apparent the harm caused by the coronavirus to people’s health becomes. This article will tell you more about potential long-term effects of COVID-19.

More and more people are suffering from long COVID

Virus infections can be tricky. Occasionally, those affected continue to suffer from symptoms long after they have recovered from an infection. Particularly with infections involving pneumonia, longer recovery times are generally observed. COVID-19 poses no exception: if anything, quite the opposite. The coronavirus is considered a multi-organ virus, which affects not only the lungs, but also numerous other organs, such as kidneys, heart, liver and brain. Accordingly, the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection observed thus far comprise a variety of symptoms.

Various disease patterns

Due to the novelty of the virus and the disease, the long-term effects and potential sequelae of a COVID-19 infection have not yet been defined.Long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection are therefore not seen as a homogeneous phenomenon, but are instead described as a variety of disease patterns that can appear both with a delay, but also simultaneously and in various forms.

From difficulties breathing to dizziness: Potential Long COVID symptoms

Around 80 percent of all those infected notice very little or nothing at all from their coronavirus infection. In mild cases, a coronavirus infection lasts between roughly two to three weeks. In severe cases, the acute phase of the disease can last twice as long. After ICU treatments, long-term effects to specific organs have often been observed. After an acute infection, some people develop symptoms from permanent fatigue to shortness of breath, neurological disorders, sudden vomiting or extreme dizziness. This phenomenon is known as “long COVID” as well as “post-COVID-19 syndrome”. Reliable, representative data concerning the share of infected people experiencing long-term effects are not yet available. The German Respiratory Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Pneumologie und Beatmungsmedizin/DGP) estimates that around ten percent of all those infected are dealing with long-term effects of this kind.

Long COVID with severe cases of COVID-19

Patients who had a severe disease progression frequently suffer from late sequelae, in particular. Data from England indicate that around 40 percent of those more severely infected require longer-term medical support, for instance to improve a limited lung function or other organs. With many patients, changes to the lung are still detected many months after the symptoms first appear. According to a study, 76 percent of around 1,700 patients, who were hospitalised in Wuhan on account of a COVID-19 infection, still exhibited at least one symptom six months after the infection: 63 percent suffered from tiredness or muscle weakness, 26 percent from sleep disorders and 23 percent from depression or anxiety disorders. A German preprint study has reached comparable conclusions.

Late sequelae following mild COVID-19 infections

Long COVID can also affect patients with mild disease progressions – and first emerge through a large variety of symptoms. It For instance, sometimes delayed-onset memory impairments are cited. The loss of taste or smell, typical of a coronavirus infection, can also persist long after recovery. One of the most frequent symptoms of long COVID is fatigue, a state of permanent exhaustion, which many of those who have recovered still suffer from months after an acute COVID-19 infection (see Infobox).

Initial post-COVID outpatient clinics and self-help groups

Late symptoms of COVID-19 are often not very specific, also with regard to lasting damage, and are still being investigated. At the same time, steps are being taken to help those affected and to gain further insights. Some clinics, such as Universitätsmedizin Essen Ruhrlandklinik or the University Hospital of Jena, are already setting up post-COVID outpatient clinics in order to care for patients with long-term effects. In Jena, almost half of those seeking assistance (46%) overcame their infection without requiring hospitalisation. There, particularly the long COVID symptoms fatigue (60%), depression (40%) and cognitive disorders (20%) were observed. The University Clinic Charité Berlin offers consultation hours for post-COVID fatigue. If these symptoms of exhaustion last for longer than six months, then those concerned can present at the clinic for further diagnosis. Self-help groups have also already formed.

Fatigue – a creeping exhaustion

Fatigue refers to a feeling of prolonged tiredness, exhaustion and lack of motivation. Often fatigue is an accompanying symptom of chronic illnesses such as cancer or rheumatism. Fatigue can also appear after virus infections such as COVID-19. The causes are not yet well-understood. Frequently it is not the virus itself that is to blame, but the immune system which has not yet come to rest following an infection, according to Berlin’s Charité website on post-COVID fatigue. If in doubt, please consult your doctor. “Resting during the recovery period” is said to often help: peace and relaxation, sufficient sleep, a normal day-night routine, avoidance of stressful situations. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga, autogenic training, meditation or breathing techniques are also said to be useful.

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