For some patients, a bout of COVID-19 may not be over after hospital discharge, acute symptoms subside, or a couple of tests for SARS-CoV-2 come back negative. Those who have reached these milestones of conquering the disease may find that their recovery journey has only begun. Debilitating symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and dyspnea may linger for weeks or longer. Patients with persistent symptoms, often referred to as “long haulers” in reference to the duration of their recovery, are looking for answers about their condition and when their COVID-19 illness will finally resolve.
Long-haul patients organize
What started as an accumulation of anecdotal evidence in social media, blogs, and the mainstream press about slow recovery and long-lasting symptoms of COVID-19 is now the focus of clinical trials in the population of recovering patients. Projects such as the COVID Symptom Study, initiated by the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; King’s College London; and Stanford (Calif.) University, are collecting data on symptoms from millions of patients and will eventually contribute to a better understanding of prolonged recovery.
Patients looking for answers have created groups on social media such as Facebook to exchange information about their experiences (e.g., Survivor Corps, COVID-19 Support Group, COVID-19 Recovered Survivors). Recovering patients have created patient-led research organizations (Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group) to explore persistent symptoms and begin to create data for research.
Some data on lingering symptoms
A small study of 143 previously hospitalized, recovering patients in Italy found that 87.4% of the cohort had at least one persistent symptom 2 months or longer after initial onset and at more than a month after discharge. In this sample, only 5% had been intubated. (JAMA 2020 Jul 9. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.12603).
One study found that even patients who have had relatively mild symptoms and were not hospitalized can have persistent symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey of adults who tested positive for the positive reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction test for SARS-CoV-2 and found that, among the 292 respondents, 35% were still feeling the impact of the disease 2-3 weeks after testing. Fatigue (71%), cough (61%), and headache (61%) were the most commonly reported symptoms. The survey found that delayed recovery was evident in nearly a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds and in a third of 35- to 49-year-olds who were not sick enough to require hospitalization (MMWR. 2020 Jul 24. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6930e1).
Sachin Gupta, MD, FCCP, ATSF, a pulmonologist and member of the CHEST Physician editorial advisory board, has treated patients with COVID-19 and shared some of his thoughts on the problem of prolonged symptoms of COVID-19.
Q: Should clinicians expect to see COVID-19 patients who have symptoms persisting weeks after they are diagnosed?
Dr. Gupta: I think clinicians, especially in primary care, are already seeing many patients with lingering symptoms, both respiratory and nonrespiratory related, and debility. A few patients here in the San Francisco Bay Area that I have spoken with 4-6 weeks out from their acute illness have complained of persisting, though improving, fatigue and cough. Early studies are confirming this as a topical issue. There may be other long-lasting sequelae of COVID-19 beyond the common mild lingering symptoms. It will also be important to consider (and get more data on) to what degree asymptomatic patients develop some degree of mild inflammatory and subsequent fibrotic changes in organs like the lungs and heart
Q: How does the recovery phase of COVID-19 compare with recovery from severe influenza or ARDS?
Dr. Gupta: Most prior influenza and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) studies have provided initial follow-up at 3 months and beyond, so technically speaking, it is a little difficult to compare the symptomatology patterns in the JAMA study of 2 months on follow-up. Nevertheless, the key takeaway is that, even though few patients in the study had ARDS requiring intubation (severe disease), many patients with milder disease had significant lingering symptoms (55% with three or more symptoms) at 2 months.
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