Long Covid – what is it and who gets it?

A pie chart showing the estimated number of people in the UK reported with long Covid by 6th March 2021, Office of National Statistics 2021

Long Covid is a debilitating disease affecting those who have had Covid-19. What is it, who gets it and how might it affect society in the long term?

Long Covid

Coronavirus Disease 19, also known as Covid-19, can cause symptoms that last for weeks or months, even after the infection has cleared. This is called post-Covid 19 syndrome or long Covid. Most people recover within 12 weeks, but some patients who continue to have symptoms after 12 weeks may have long Covid.

So far, there have been 674,000 people in the UK with self-reported long Covid symptoms that affect their ability to live a normal life, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Some sufferers mentioned that their everyday lives and activities were being affected.

The diverse range of symptoms include fatigue, chest pain, muscle pain, shortness of breath, cognitive disorders, insomnia, coughing and a sore throat; these symptoms can also cause mental issues such as anxiety and depression. The ONS stated that the effects of quarantine, lockdown and the economy are other factors that influence the severity of long Covid symptoms in the UK.

More than 1 million long covid sufferers

It seems that specific research on which regional areas within the UK contain the highest numbers of long Covid has not been conducted. However, according to the Office of National Statistics(ONS), by 6 March 2021 approximately 1.1 million people in the UK living in private households had reported symptoms of long Covid that had persisted for more than four weeks. Covid-19 is generally considered to become long Covid when symptoms last for longer than 4 weeks.

Out of the 1.1 million people, an estimate of 932,000 people lived in England. The statistics appear to conclude that women especially, and people living in the most deprived areas and work in health or social care or with existing health conditions were more susceptible. Reasons remain unclear so far, as the ONS report says, ‘the observed statistical associations may be the result of several factors that cannot be separated.’

Economic consequences

After the third national lockdown starting in January 2021, many businesses temporarily closed. Therefore, some people were unable to work for weeks, causing more financial strain upon some families. Some people were fortunate to be paid by the furlough scheme set by the government, but others lost their jobs due to the lack of capital to support the employees and the business through the months ahead.

Consequently, the economic aftermath is bound to cause a rippling effect towards some people’s lives financially, mentally and physiologically.

But why do the symptoms continue to persist after the viral infection clears?


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Immune ageing

The New Scientist May 2021 reported three studies relating to long term effects of Covid-19 that were discussed at a virtual conference hosted by the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium and British Society for Immunology. They concluded that the Covid-19 virus causes the immune system to have a hangover effect, called premature immunosenescence or immune ageing, with long term changes in the immune system. These changes are still being investigated.

At the University of Birmingham, Niharika Duggal and her colleagues witnessed various signs of immune ageing such as a reduction of B- and T- immune cells, which are part of the adaptive immune response to target pathogens. This immune ageing was also witnessed in people between the ages of 30 to 68, which differs from the age range seen the previous year in 2017 – between ages 25 – 34.

At this point, it is difficult to conclude which age group is most significantly affected by long Covid. The picture is likely to become clearer as more data is collected.

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