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Long COVID: The Long-term Health Impacts of COVID-19

A major £8.4 million research study funded by the NIHR and UK Research and Innovation has been launched to investigate the long-term health impacts that COVID-19 is likely to have on the UK. This research aims to discover the best care pathways and support for patients that have or have had the virus in order to try and minimise the impact that it will have for years to come. Participants who have tested positive for COVID-19 will undergo clinical assessments over a year long period to track their symptoms and gain a comprehensive picture of the impact COVID-19 has had on longer-term health outcomes across the UK.

The Post-Hospitalisation COVID-19 Study will be led by the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre and will be recruiting 10,000 participants from across the UK to gather the results.

At present, there is still so much that is unknown about the disease. It’s vitally important that we begin to consider the possible health impacts and properly prepare our infrastructure so that the health services can cope with the demand. Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary said: “We are learning more and more about the impact the disease can have not only on immediate health, but longer term physical and mental health too.”

But what could some of the long-term impacts of COVID-19 be?

Whilst most people that test positive for the disease suffer minimal or even no symptoms, some people can develop complications such as severe pneumonia that have proven to be fatal and can cause problems for years to come.

A small but significant percentage of people who have contracted COVID-19 (around one in 10) have experienced ongoing health problems that last a long time after the initial virus infection. People have been reporting a wide range of serious symptoms such as chronic fatigue, racing heartbeats, pain, fever and debilitating headaches which can come and go, continuing for up to three months after they first fell sick. Medical professionals have termed this post-viral syndrome but, as yet, nobody really understands why some suffer for longer periods while others seem to recover from the virus much more easily.

Hospitalisation also has its own risks. People that spend time in ICU are much more prone to physical, mental and cognitive issues when they leave – this is known as Post-Intensive Care Syndrome. Some coronavirus patients have spent a long period of time on ventilators, which puts their lungs under a great deal of strain whilst being under sedation. With an average of about 67% of ventilated COVID-19 patients not making it through intensive care, those that do pull through will undoubtedly not be as healthy or physically fit as they were when they went in.

Another risk for hospitalised patients is delirium – a state of confusion caused by the virus that’s often worsened when patients are prescribed sedatives in order to ease coughing symptoms and the discomfort of having a breathing tube. Thinking of longer-term risk, studies found that people who had virus strains such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) experienced damaged brain cells due to inflammation in the body, which stopped blood flow to the brain.  blood flow to the brain.

Organ damage is another risk for those who suffer the worst symptoms of COVID-19 – with heart, liver and kidney issues being the most likely problems. A recent British Heart Foundation funded study showed that around half of 1216 patients who received a heart scan while in hospital due to Covid-19 showed abnormalities in their heart function, with around one in seven showing severe abnormalities likely to have a major effect on their survival and recovery. Within previous virus outbreaks, lingering long-term organ damage has been a problem. With a pandemic this size, the long-term damage is likely to affect a large number of people, making an epidemic of chronic illness a very possible scenario in the future.

Other worries are emerging about the mental health of people that have been in self-isolation or in ICU, who have an increased likelihood of suffering from anxiety and PTSD. Not to mention the thousands of bereaved families that will be trying to come to terms with the loss of loved ones.

Although it’s important to stay positive about a post COVID-19 world, scientists now need to start looking ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic will shape the future.