Even mild cases can lead to long COVID, study finds

You’re less likely to develop the dreaded ‘long COVID’ from Omicron than from previous variants, but even cases with mild symptoms can cause long-term problems, the latest research shows.

A few months after the pandemic began, reports started to emerge of COVID patients who were still suffering from virus symptoms weeks, or even months, after their initial diagnosis. Now, reports are emerging of patients suffering years on from first testing positive.

These symptoms typically include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, changes to taste and smell and ongoing joint and muscle pain.

The condition was dubbed ‘long COVID’ and predicting exactly who will develop it, and why, has been tricky.

Read: Vaccines only partially effective against long COVID, study finds

There has been a common misconception that only those with severe symptoms go on to develop long COVID, but new research from the Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) study shows that nine out of 10 long COVID sufferers were not taken to hospital when they originally contracted the virus.

Professor Bruce Brew, neurologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, says for some patients it may take another year before they will see any improvement.

“The impact of long COVID on some is significant,” Prof. Brew said.

“I had one patient, a businessman, who had to sell his business because he could no longer focus on contracts and negotiations during meetings.”

Read: Scientists identify the ‘biomarkers’ of long COVID

Professor Steven Faux, who runs the long COVID clinic at St Vincent’s, says he is seeing up to 10 new patients each week, with many people finding it difficult to continue working.

“We’re seeing people with slow thought processes and confusion, which is very similar to a traumatic brain injury.”

Another study, from King’s College London, has shed some light on possible differences between COVID variants and their likelihood of turning into long COVID.

Read: I’ve never had COVID-19. Does this mean I’m in the clear?

In an analysis of more than 56,000 adult COVID cases across the UK, the research team found the odds of experiencing long COVID were between 20 and 50 per cent less during the Omicron variant period versus the Delta period.

The study found 4.4 per cent of Omicron cases turned into long COVID, compared to 10.8 per cent of Delta cases. However, the total number of long COVID cases was higher during the Omicron period due to the sheer number of cases overall.

“The Omicron variant appears substantially less likely to cause long COVID than previous variants but still one in 23 people who catch COVID-19 go on to have symptoms for more than four weeks,” says Dr Clare Steves, lead author of the study.

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