New study reveals serious impact of long COVID

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A new study has found that 59 per cent of long COVID patients continue to suffer from organ damage a year after experiencing initial symptoms, even in cases where the virus did not initially affect them severely. 

The comprehensive study, which was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, focused on patients reporting extreme breathlessness, cognitive dysfunction and poor health-related quality of life.

In total, 536 long COVID patients were included in the study, with 13 per cent being hospitalised when first diagnosed with COVID-19, and 32 per cent of participants being healthcare workers.

Of the 536 patients, 331 (62 per cent) were identified with organ impairment six months after their initial diagnosis. These patients were followed up six months later with a 40-minute multi-organ MRI scan, which was analysed in Oxford. According to the findings 29 per cent of patients with long COVID had multi-organ impairment, with persistent symptoms and reduced function at six and 12 months. Furthermore, 59 per cent of long COVID patients had single organ impairment 12 months after initial diagnosis.

The study also revealed that symptoms remained common at six and 12 months and were associated with female gender, younger age, and single organ impairment. However, there was a reduction in symptoms between six and 12 months, including extreme breathlessness, cognitive dysfunction, and poor health-related quality of life.

Senior author Professor Amitava Banerjee, from the UCL Institute of Health Informatics, commented on the findings, saying, “Several studies confirm persistence of symptoms in individuals with long COVID up to one year. We now add that three in five people with long COVID have impairment in at least one organ, and one in four have impairment in two or more organs, in some cases without symptoms.”

The underlying mechanisms of long COVID remain elusive, and the researchers did not find evidence by symptoms, blood investigations, or MRI to clearly define long COVID subtypes. Therefore, future research must consider associations between symptoms, multi-organ impairment, and function in larger cohorts.

Professor Banerjee concluded that "organ impairment in long COVID has implications for symptoms, quality of life, and longer-term health, signaling the need for prevention and integrated care for long COVID patients". This is particularly important for healthcare workers who may be off work for an extended period of time due to long COVID symptoms, impacting their quality of life and the healthcare system.

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