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Study sheds light on who is most likely to develop long COVID

Michelle Answerth beams as she recalls spending the warm summer days of her long service leave sailing down the coast of tropical north Queensland with her partner at the end of last year.

“We sailed up to Magnetic Island, around Townsville, and then all around Queensland, the Whitsundays and then all the way down the coast back to Victoria,” she says.

However, shortly after returning home for Christmas, the 54-year-old contracted COVID-19.

In the first five or six days she had few symptoms, but then started getting sicker.

“For me, most of the issue was around the body aches,” she says.

Little did she know then, but those body aches would persist and her infection would change her life as she knew it.

Michelle Answerth sailed down the east coast of Australia while on long service leave. (Supplied: Michelle Answerth)

Ms Answerth has long COVID and has been unable to return to her job as a disability support worker due to extensive nerve pain and reduced mobility in her arms.

“I’d be breathless just walking up my stairs at home, breathless at the top of the stairs, standing up, sitting down – just doing normal things,” she said.

“As well as the pain, I was [also] losing the motion of my right arm and a little bit in my left arm.”

While some of her symptoms – such as fatigue and brain fog – have eased, Ms Answerth has been unable to maintain her active, pre-COVID lifestyle, which has caused her to gain about 10 kilograms.

“The first few months were hugely stressful and really quite scary as well because I didn’t know, on a cellular level, what was going on with my body,” she said.

“I still don’t, because there’s different studies that explain different theories, but there’s no definitive answer.”

Women more likely to develop long COVID, study says

New research published in scientific journal Nature Communications overnight suggests that, as a women in her 50s, Ms Answerth is in a prime risk group for developing the illness.

According to the Australian government, long COVID is where symptoms persist for more than four weeks. 

Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath or chest tightness, brain fog and difficulty with memory and joint pain. 

Very little is known about the illness, what causes it, nor how to treat it effectively.

British researchers found symptoms of long COVID are more frequently reported by women, those with poor health before the pandemic, and those aged 50 to 60 years.

Researchers at King’s College, London, reviewed data from nearly 7000 people in health surveys as well as the electronic health records of more than 1.1 million people diagnosed with COVID-19.

They found the odds of developing long COVID were 50 per cent higher in women than men.

The peer-reviewed data is consistent with findings from other studies that have found women are more susceptible to long COVID, says Kirsty Short, a virologist from the University of Queensland. 

“This study is strengthened because of the large sample and, also, that they looked at multiple data sources. So I think this study is very strong and robust,” Dr Short said.

Dr Kirsty Short says there isn’t a great treatment for long COVID. (ABC News: Marton Dobras)

Age appears to be a factor, with your likelihood of developing long COVID increasing up to the age of 70.

In addition, researchers say having asthma increases your chances of getting the post-viral illness.

Interestingly, they found no strong evidence of associations of long COVID with a previous medical history of diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

“Given the scale of the pandemic, even a low proportion of individuals with long COVID will generate a major burden of enduring illness,” the study authors said.

Thousands of patients, yet no real treatments

Many Australians are struggling with long COVID.

While there are no official figures on the prevalence here, overseas data suggests between 10 to 30 per cent of people who contract COVID-19 will have ongoing health issues.

Many patients can develop a condition known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome or POTS.

When you stand up, your heart races and blood pressure falls and this can lead to severe fatigue, headaches and difficulty concentrating.

With seven million Australians having contracted the virus, even if 5 per cent of people get long COVID, that could mean up to 350,000 people are affected.

“This is something we really need to focus on, in the scientific community, in the medical community and in public health,” Dr Short said.

“There is going to be a burden of disease from long COVID, but how significant and what it means for the workforce and healthcare system, we don’t really know yet.”

Many long COVID patients who have contacted the ABC, such as Michelle, have said they could no longer work and struggled with day-to-day living.

Long COVID clinics have been set up in major hospitals in most states and territories offering rehabilitation, physiotherapy and psychological support among other services.

However, there are few medications that can help patients regain the physical and cognitive abilities they had before getting the virus.

“The real difficulty we have with long COVID is that we don’t have a great diagnostic test and we don’t have a great treatment,” Dr Short said.

Dr Short’s laboratory at the University of Queensland is working on a diagnostic tool for long COVID, focusing on the role that inflammation plays in the illness.

“If we can understand how long COVID develops, then we can develop better treatments for sufferers of long COVID,” she said.

There are also many studies trialling possible treatments, such as anti-inflammatories or antivirals.

Michelle Answerth now helps run a support page for long COVID patients. (Supplied: Michelle Answerth)

Ms Answerth now helps to run a Facebook community page for long COVID patients.

Given the lack of understanding of the illness, or research into it, the 1400-member group has become a grassroots form of support for sufferers to share their experiences.

“There are men who are active in the group, but it is predominantly women. I see a lot of people who were previously active who are like, ‘This has really changed my life’,” she said.

It’s for that reason that Ms Answerth hopes any research into the illness will help to find new treatments and support for those who have the condition.

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