It has been nearly a year since a mysterious, pneumonia-like illness originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan was first reported outside China. For many, the intervening months have felt interminable, like living with a recurrent disease they cannot shake. Some actually are. Although most bouts of covid-19 are mild, lasting only one or two weeks, many people are left with lingering symptoms weeks or even months after infection.
Recent research, published in the Lancet, a medical journal, offers more insight into how long those severely afflicted with covid-19 suffer. The study followed 1,733 patients hospitalised in Wuhan between January and March 2020. It found that, six months on, 76% were still experiencing at least one symptom. Fatigue and muscle weakness were the most common (63%), followed by sleep disturbances (25%), hair loss (10%) and problems with the sense of smell (10%). Problems with anxiety and depression were also reported. Those most unwell during their time in hospital also exhibited signs of impaired lung function; chest imaging detected abnormalities, which could indicate organ damage. Old age increases vulnerability to covid-19. But the median age of people in the study was 57, meaning that half were working-age adults.
The study is the largest investigation into the long-term impact of covid-19 in patients discharged from hospital, according to its authors. It suggests that such patients may require specialised care, something that is starting to be recognised, as indicated by the creation of clinics dedicated to “long-haulers” in Britain and America.
It does not, however, explain why such protracted impacts are felt, nor how they might be prevented. Long-term symptoms are often seen in patients who are ill enough to spend time in intensive-care units for other ailments or injuries. But only 4% of the respondents in Wuhan had been admitted to intensive care. Hospitals everywhere are bursting with coronavirus patients: in Britain alone, more than 37,000 people are currently hospitalised with the disease. If a large proportion of them are susceptible to prolonged symptoms, that leaves a lot of people not returning to normal. And that is in addition to the long-lasting symptoms seen among people who were never hospitalised in the first place. A study published in October, based on data from a symptom-tracking app used in several countries (including America, Britain and Sweden), estimated that 2.3% of people who contracted covid-19 were still unwell three months after first showing symptoms. All were younger and less severely ill than the patients followed in Wuhan. Experts don’t yet know why this happens. A year on from the first case of covid-19, medical understanding of the disease is still woefully incomplete.
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