- Patients who experience more than five COVID-19 symptoms during their first week of illness are more likely to have a long-term case, according to a new study.
- Certain symptoms in particular — fatigue, headache, difficulty breathing, a hoarse voice, and muscle or body aches — were also found to be early signs that a patient might not recover quickly.
- Age, gender, and BMI could play a role as well, according to the study.
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For a select group of coronavirus patients known as “long-haulers,” the onset of symptoms is the beginning of an extended battle. Many COVID-19 patients develop weeks- or months-long illnesses that researchers now call “long-COVID.”
These individuals are difficult to study, since not all received a proper diagnosis initially due to testing shortages or the abnormal nature of their symptoms. Some may simply not report lingering ailments, making them difficult for researchers to track.
But a spate of preliminary studies are beginning to pinpoint the early signs that a patient won’t recover right away.
A recent study from King’s College London, which is still awaiting peer review, examined more than 4,000 coronavirus patients across Sweden, the UK, and the US by asking them to record their symptoms in an app. About 20% said they still weren’t feeling better after four weeks — the threshold at which the researchers mark a case of long-COVID. By eight weeks, around 190 patients reported lingering symptoms. And by 12 weeks, nearly 100 patients said they hadn’t recovered yet.
Patients who experienced more than five symptoms during the first week of their illness were significantly more likely to develop long-COVID, the study found. That was true across sex and age groups.
The researchers also identified five symptoms that predicted a case of long-COVID more than others: fatigue, headache, difficulty breathing, a hoarse voice, and muscle or body aches. This could offer clues about targets for future COVID-19 treatments.
“It’s important we use the knowledge we have gained from the first wave in the pandemic to reduce the long-term impact of the second,” Dr. Claire Steves, the study’s senior author, said in a statement. “Thanks to the diligent logging of our contributors so far, this research could already pave the way for preventative and treatment strategies for long-COVID.”
Nearly 98% of patients with long-COVID in the study reported fatigue, while 91% reported a headache.
“We know that fatigue is a huge component, so I’m really glad that their research captured that,” Natalie Lambert, an associate professor of medicine at Indiana University who wasn’t involved in the study, told Business Insider.
Lambert is also looking at patterns of symptoms among long-COVID patients. All of the roughly 1,500 long-haulers she surveyed in July said they’d experienced fatigue at some point in their illness. Roughly two-thirds said they had experienced muscle or body aches. The same amount said they had difficulty breathing, and around 58% said they had developed a headache.
The results of the King’s College study, Lambert said,