Persistent “Long COVID” Symptoms Suffered by More Than Half of People Diagnosed With COVID-19

Woman Long COVID Sick

Half of COVID survivors experience lingering symptoms six months after recovery.

More than half of the 236 million people who have been diagnosed with

During their illnesses, many patients with COVID-19 experience symptoms, such as tiredness, difficulty breathing, chest pain, sore joints and loss of taste or smell.

Until recently, few studies have evaluated patients’ health after recovering from the coronavirus. To better understand the short- and long-term health effects of the virus, the researchers examined worldwide studies involving unvaccinated patients who recovered from COVID-19. According to the findings, adults, as well as children, can experience several adverse health issues for six months or longer after recovering from COVID-19.

The researchers conducted a systematic review of 57 reports that included data from 250,351 unvaccinated adults and children who were diagnosed with COVID-19 from December 2019 through March 2021. Among those studied, 79% were hospitalized, and most patients (79%) lived in high-income countries. Patients’ median age was 54, and the majority of individuals (56%) were male.

The researchers analyzed patients’ health post-COVID during three intervals at one month (short-term), two to five months (intermediate-term) and six or more months (long-term).

According to the findings, survivors experienced an array of residual health issues associated with COVID-19. Generally, these complications affected a patient’s general well-being, their mobility or organ systems. Overall, one in two survivors experienced long-term COVID manifestations. The rates remained largely constant from one month through six or more months after their initial illness. 

The investigators noted several trends among survivors, such as:

  • General well-being: More than half of all patients reported weight loss, fatigue, fever or pain.
  • Mobility: Roughly one in five survivors experienced a decrease in mobility.
  • Neurologic concerns: Nearly one in four survivors experienced difficulty concentrating.
  • Mental health disorders: Nearly one in three patients were diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorders.
  • Lung abnormalities: Six in ten survivors had chest imaging abnormality and more than a quarter of patients had difficulty breathing.
  • Cardiovascular issues: Chest pain and palpitations were among the commonly reported conditions.
  • Skin conditions: Nearly one in five patients experienced hair loss or rashes.
  • Digestive issues: Stomach pain, lack of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting were among the commonly reported conditions.

“These findings confirm what many health care workers and COVID-19 survivors have been claiming, namely, that adverse health effects from COVID-19 can linger,” said co-lead investigator Vernon Chinchilli, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences. “Although previous studies have examined the prevalence of long COVID symptoms among patients, this study examined a larger population, including people in high-, middle- and low-income countries, and examined many more symptoms. Therefore, we believe our findings are quite robust given the available data.”

“The burden of poor health in COVID-19 survivors is overwhelming,” said co-lead investigator Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, assistant professor at the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering. “Among these are the mental health disorders. One’s battle with COVID doesn’t end with recovery from the acute infection. Vaccination is our best ally to prevent getting sick from COVID-19 and to reduce the chance of long-COVID even in the presence of a breakthrough infection.”

The mechanisms by which COVID-19 causes lingering symptoms in survivors are not fully understood. These symptoms could result from immune-system overdrive triggered by the virus, lingering infection, reinfection or an increased production of autoantibodies (antibodies directed at their own tissues). The DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.28568

Destin Groff, Ashley Sun, Anna Ssentongo, Djibril Ba, Dr. Alain Lekoubou; Dr. John Oh; and Dr. Jessica Ericson from Penn State College of Medicine contributed to this research. Nicholas Parsons from Deakin University and Govinda Poudel from Australian Catholic University in Australia also contributed to this research.

The researchers declare no conflicts of interest or specific funding for this research.