COVID-19 symptoms do not present themselves and disappear overnight. The virus’ incubation period, i.e. from the time a person is infected until symptoms appear, is approximately 5.6 days and 3 days for Omicron. In the initial strains, symptoms can be present for a couple of days to two full weeks, which is why isolation periods were set at 14 days from testing positive. The isolation mandate for Omicron is shorter due to the variant’s higher transmissibility and shorter incubation, lasting only for five days after testing positive.
After recovery, most COVID-19 patients yield a negative RT-PCR test result, signaling that they are no longer infectious. However, several studies have revealed that COVID-19 symptoms can linger even several months to a year after infection, a phenomenon the scientific community has coined “long COVID.”
Long COVID can be characterized by persisting and recurring symptoms, including cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and shortness of breath. It affects both adults and children previously infected with COVID-19, but little is known about it — until now. The United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) has released the nation’s COVID-19 data, which sheds more light on the long COVID phenomenon.
Here’s what the data revealed.
1.33 Million People in the U.K. Experienced Long COVID
According to the ONS data retrieved from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey (CIS), 1.33 million people who were previously infected with COVID-19 reported lingering symptoms at least a year after infection. This accounts for roughly 2.1% of the U.K.’s population, with 1 in 48 people experiencing long COVID.
The most commonly experienced symptoms of long COVID include:
- Loss of smell
- Loss of taste
- Shortness of breath
According to Dr. Donald J. Alcendor, associate professor of microbiology, immunology, and physiology at Meharry Medical College, cognitive symptoms are also becoming increasingly common.
On why COVID-19 symptoms may persist long after recovery, the head of Düzen Laboratories molecular biology unit, Dr. Tutku Taşkınoğlu says that diseases can be triggered after viral infections, the most common of which include chronic fatigue symptom and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
Further, about two-thirds (836,000) of people surveyed said that long COVID symptoms, especially fatigue, have limited their daily activities.
Long COVID More Prevalent in Adults Ages 35 to 69 and Individuals With High-Contact Professions
The ONS analysis revealed the age group that is more likely to experience long COVID symptoms, particularly, adults ages 35 to 69. The phenomenon was also more common among females with a health condition or disability that prevents regular exercise.
From Dr. Tutku Taşkınoğlu’s observations, long COVID symptoms in women include abdominal pain, anxiety, and persistent headaches. Men more often reported cognitive impairments and breathing difficulties.
Supporting initial speculations that higher viral loads may have something to do with long COVID, the data revealed that individuals with professions that involve direct, person-to-person contact, had a higher chance of experiencing long COVID symptoms. These include those working in education, healthcare, and social care.
Long COVID Cases May Be Lower With Omicron
Long COVID is not selective of COVID-19 variants, occurring despite the COVID-19 strain of infection. As of now, there is little known about long COVID caused by Omicron because the variant has only been around for about four months.
Although it may be too early to make conclusions, doctors have depended on initial data to suggest that long COVID incidences may be lower with Omicron because the variant does not make permanent changes in the body’s inflammatory process.
However, if an individual with underlying illnesses gets infected with Omicron, long COVID is still quite a possibility. According to the ONC analysis, hospitalized patients are more likely to experience long COVID owing to the severity of Omicron’s impact on their bodies.
Long COVID in the United States
Because the volume of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is much higher than it is in the U.K., more Americans have reported experiencing long COVID symptoms. Rough estimates suggest that 10% to 30% of infected individuals in the U.S. are likely to develop long COVID.
While there are no sure-fire ways to avoid long COVID symptoms, there are still proactive things we can do to protect ourselves. From mask-wearing to taking care of our overall health, we can combat the negative effects of Omicron and other variants in our bodies and reduce the chances of severe illnesses and diseases brought about by COVID-19 infection.