Half of COVID-19 Patients Experience Lingering Symptoms for Six Months, Says Study

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With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, researchers and health experts are continuing to look into the virus itself, not to mention the side effects commonly associated with it (e.g. shortness of breath, change in taste or smell). And while some infected with the virus can typically recover within a few weeks, according to the Mayo Clinic, it appears some may still experience symptoms beyond their initial recovery.

In fact, a new analysis released by researchers at Penn State found that half of COVID-19 survivors worldwide experience lingering effects from the virus for at least six months after infection. That said, experts are growing increasingly concerned about the still-unknown effects of those impacted by long-COVID. (Read more: How Common Are the Long-Term Effects of COVID-19?)

In the meta-analysis, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at Penn State College of Medicine looked at data from 57 studies with information on more than 250,000 unvaccinated adults and children, who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between December 2019 through March 2021. Keep in mind, this timeframe was before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to adults in the U.S. The patients' median age was 54 and more than half (56 percent) were male, with patients residing in high-, middle-, and low-income countries. Researchers analyzed patients' health post-COVID at three interval markers: one month (short-term), two to five months (intermediate-term), and six months or longer (long-term).

Though all those studied survived the virus, more than half experienced "long-COVID" symptoms, a blanket term for some of the physical and mental health symptoms that arise weeks or even months beyond infection. These symptoms included hair loss, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. About 50 percent of the study's participants experienced several additional adverse health issues for six months after recovering from the novel coronavirus. Stomach pain, lack of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting were commonly reported, with more than half of all patients experiencing weight loss, fatigue, fever, or pain. Chest pain and palpitations were also common, with 60 percent of survivors showing chest imaging abnormality (think: cloudiness of lungs, hazy white patches caused by the virus...) and more than 25 percent reporting difficulty breathing. Other physical ailments included hair loss, rashes, and a decrease in mobility.

But it's not just physical symptoms that can impact a survivor. In fact, long-COVID brings with it a host of neurologic and emotional symptoms, with nearly one in four of the study's participants reporting difficulty concentrating. Additionally, nearly one in three patients was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of things — e.g. health, money, work — that can interfere with everyday life, according to the Mayo Clinic. What's more, as many as 30 percent of COVID survivors reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, sleep disorders, or anxiety long after initial recovery as well. These can be exacerbated by other work and life stressors that so many have experienced for the better part of the last two years in the pandemic. (Read more: The Potential Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 You Need to Know About)

Health experts are looking into why, exactly, this virus seems to cause lingering effects, but researchers told PennLive there could be several potential factors at play: an immune-system response triggered by the virus, lingering infection even after the patient appears to have cleared the virus, and reinfection. Another potential culprit might be the increased production of autoantibodies, aka "self-attacking" antibodies that essentially cause the immune system to turn against itself.

The researchers noted that this study appears to be the largest study of its kind so far, and while it's no doubt nerve-wracking given that the U.S. is still in the throes of the pandemic, researchers note one major bright spot. Since the study's data concluded in March 2021, millions of Americans have received initial doses and/or COVID-19 vaccine boosters, thereby ensuring that they're at a much lower risk for suffering lingering effects even if they do experience a breakthrough infection. But for those who have been infected and have not been vaccinated, "the burden of long-COVID is very high," says Paddy Ssentongo, M.D., a physician and assistant professor at Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, told Penn Live. That said, however, only time will tell what's in store for COVID-19 survivors.

As Dr. Ssentongo notes in a press release announcing the study's findings, "One's battle with COVID doesn't end with recovery from the acute infection. Vaccination is our best ally to prevent getting sick from COVID-19 and to reduce the chance of long-COVID even in the presence of a breakthrough infection." With so much still unknown when it comes to the coronavirus, that makes using the tools available — vaccines, masks, social distancing when possible, and frequent hand washing — all the more essential.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.