Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle contacted 234 people with lab-confirmed COVID-19 between August and November 2020, with the aim of asking them to complete survey questions about their illness and recovery — both right away, and three to nine months after the onset of their illness. A total of 177 people completed both parts of the survey, all of them residents of the Seattle area. The average age of participants was 48, and 57% were women.
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At the time of their COVID-19 diagnosis or positive test result, 6.2% of participants had no symptoms, 84.7% had mild illness that didn’t require hospitalization, and 9.0% had moderate to severe illness that required hospitalization. Participants completed later survey questions about their recovery a median of 169 days after the onset of their illness.
At the time of their follow-up survey, a significant proportion of participants in all age groups reported ongoing symptoms — 26.6% of those ages 18 to 39, 30.1% of those ages 40 to 64, and 43.3% of those ages 65 and above. Perhaps surprisingly, the proportion of participants reporting ongoing symptoms was roughly the same among those with mild illness (32.7%) and those who were hospitalized (31.3%). Among participants with either hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes, 35.5% had ongoing symptoms.
Commonly reported lasting COVID-19 symptoms
The most commonly reported ongoing symptoms were fatigue (13.6% of participants) and loss of taste or smell (also 13.6%). Another 13.0% reported other symptoms, including 2.3% with ongoing brain fog. Out of all participants with mild to severe COVID-19, 30.7% reported a worse quality of life than before their illness, based on a standardized assessment. In addition, 7.9% reported that their symptoms had a negative impact on an activity in their daily life, such as household chores.
It’s unclear what exactly causes ongoing symptoms in people who have supposedly “recovered” from COVID-19, according to study author Helen Chu, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “The question is, what is driving this?” Chu notes in a news release. “Is it some sort of immune activation, some sort of inflammation or the development of autoimmunity?”
This isn’t just a rhetorical question — it’s one that Chu’s lab, and others across the country, will be actively trying to answer as they analyze blood samples from people with ongoing COVID-19 symptoms going forward. “There hasn’t been sufficient research to understand what causes” ongoing symptoms or how to treat them, says Chu. “In the meantime, the first thing we are doing is to quantify and describe” what people with COVID-19 experience as they recover.
Regardless of what’s causing ongoing symptoms in some people, this study should serve as a cautionary reminder that even if you’re fairly young and healthy, if you develop COVID-19, “You can do well initially, but then over time develop symptoms that are quite crippling in terms of fatigue,” Chu warns.
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