In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a population of patients has arisen with a range of symptoms and complications after surviving the acute phase of illness, according to Mezgebe Berhe, MD, of Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas.
Different terms have been used to describe this condition, including post COVID, long COVID, chronic COVID, and long-haulers, Dr. Berhe said in a presentation at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. However, the current medical consensus for a definition is post–acute COVID-19 syndrome.
Acute COVID-19 generally lasts for about 4 weeks after the onset of symptoms, and post–acute COVID-19 is generally defined as “persistent symptoms and/or delayed or long-term complications beyond 4 weeks from the onset of symptoms,” he said. The postacute period may be broken into a subacute phase with symptoms and abnormalities present from 4-12 weeks beyond the acute phase, and then a chronic or post–acute COVID-19 syndrome, with symptoms and abnormalities present beyond 12 weeks after the onset of acute COVID-19.
Patients in the subacute or post–COVID-19 phase of illness are polymerase chain reaction negative and may have multiorgan symptomatology, said Dr. Berhe. Physical symptoms include fatigue, decline in quality of life, joint pain, and muscle weakness; reported mental symptoms include anxiety and depression; sleep disturbance; PTSD; cognitive disturbance (described by patients as “brain fog”); and headaches.
Pulmonary symptoms in post–acute COVID-19 patients include dyspnea, cough, and persistent oxygen requirements; patients also have reported palpitations and chest pain. Thromboembolism, chronic kidney disease, and hair loss also have been reported in COVID-19 patients in the postacute period.
What studies show
Early reports on postacute consequences of COVID-19 have been reported in published studies from the United States, Europe, and China, and the current treatment recommendations are based on findings from these studies, Dr. Berhe said.
In an observational cohort study from 38 hospitals in Michigan, researchers assessed 60-day outcomes for 1,250 COVID-19 patients who were discharged alive from the hospital. The researchers used medical record abstraction and telephone surveys to assess long-term symptoms. Overall, 6.7% of the patients died and 15.1% required hospital readmission. A total of 488 patients completed the telephone survey. Of these, 32.6% reported persistent symptoms, 18.9% reported new or worsening symptoms, 22.9% reported dyspnea while walking up stairs, 15.4% reported a cough, and 13.1% reported a persistent loss of taste or smell.
Data from multiple countries in Europe have shown similar prevalence of post–acute COVID-19 syndrome, but Dr. Berhe highlighted an Italian study in which 87% of 143 patients discharged from hospitals after acute COVID-19 reported at least one symptom at 60 day. “A decline in quality of life, as measured by the EuroQol visual analog scale, was reported by 44.1% of patients” in the Italian study, Dr. Berhe noted.
In a prospective cohort study conducted in Wuhan, China, researchers conducted a comprehensive in-person evaluation of symptoms in 1,733 COVID-19 patients at 6 months from symptom onset, and found that 76% reported at least one symptom, said Dr. Berhe. “Similar to other studies, muscle weakness and fatigue were the most common symptoms, followed by sleep problems and anxiety/depression.
Dr. Berhe also cited a literature review published in Clinical Infectious Diseases that addressed COVID-19 in children; in one study of postacute COVID-19, approximately 12% of children had 5 weeks’ prevalence of persistent symptoms, compared with 22% of adults. This finding should remind clinicians that “Children can have devastating persistent symptoms following acute COVID-19 disease,” Dr. Berhe said.
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