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A new study found that the effects of long COVID may cause worse fatigue and quality of life than other serious health conditions. Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Severe long COVID fatigue may reduce quality of life more than stage 4 lung cancer, according to a new study.
  • The findings show that long COVID may also be as challenging as other serious health conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or Parkinson’s disease.
  • The study also notes that more women than men reported experiencing negative, life changing impacts from long COVID.
  • The researchers hope to highlight the seriousness of long COVID for physicians and other healthcare professionals who may have dismissed the severity of the condition.

A new study from the University College of London and the University of Exeter finds that among severe cases of long COVID, fatigue may be more debilitating than it is for some people with other life-altering diseases.

Study participants reported having worse fatigue than reported by people with stroke, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), end-stage renal disease, or cancer with anemia. They also had a lower health-related quality of life than reported by people with stage 4 lung cancer

The findings suggest that fatigue-driven functional impairment experienced by people with severe long COVID can be worse than what is experienced by people who have had a stroke and is roughly the same as for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).

But not everyone with long COVID experiences such extreme symptoms.

The cases included in the study’s analysis documented the health and self-reported functional impairment and quality of life of individuals who attended National Health Service long COVID clinics in the United Kingdom. Thus, it primarily reflects the experiences of individuals whose symptoms were severe enough that they sought medical care for the condition.

Still, the research provides striking support for people with a condition that remains somewhat undefined and may be dismissed by physicians.

The results were recently published in BMJ Open.

Long COVID is a syndrome that occurs after an acute infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Symptoms of long COVID persist for at least 12 weeks following acute infection.

Study co-author and developmental geneticist Henry Goodfellow, PhD, said in an interview with University College London News that up to about 17% of people who get COVID-19 go on to develop long COVID.

The cause of long COVID remains unclear, though most research points to having been hospitalized with severe COVID-19 as a main cause. It is also linked to risk factors associated with serious COVID-19 infections.

A recent Harvard study found that long COVID was most likely to affect people with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic lung disease, and depression.

Another study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine determined that being over 40, female, a smoker, and having a high body mass index (BMI) were all risk factors associated with long COVID.

The range of symptoms long COVID encompasses is broad and not yet well-defined, though the most common symptoms are fatigue and “brain fog.”

Of course, being vaccinated against COVID-19 lowers the chance of developing long COVID.

Dr. Andrew Lloyd, PhD, professor of medicine and health at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told Medical News Today that “long COVID, when carefully defined, is largely suitably labeled as yet another post-infective fatigue syndrome akin to post-viral fatigue after glandular fever.”

Except for long COVID’s unique effect on smell and taste, Dr. Lloyd sees it as otherwise “standard” for such syndromes.

Participants in the study related their symptoms and experiences in a questionnaire using an app provided to them at long COVID clinics to which they had reported for care.

Their responses were rated according to several established rating systems.

“As this was a new disease, it was important for patients and clinicians to be able to put data about how long COVID was affecting people into context,” Dr. Goodfellow told MNT.

The study findings show that women experienced worse outcomes from long COVID than men. This is consistent with previous studies but remains unexplained.

Dr. Goodfellow suggested this may be due to many more women attending the clinics taking part in the study.

The majority of people included in the study were of working age. Just over half of the participants reported losing more than a day of work in the previous four weeks, and 20% reported not being able to work altogether.

The researchers found that fatigue, depression, and cognitive impairment were the primary reasons work had become too difficult to perform.

“For me, the most surprising result was how much long COVID was affecting the day-to-day activities of patients. The majority of patients were reporting that they were really struggling to do common everyday activities that we take for granted, such as simple household chores or going to work.”

– Henry Goodfellow, PhD, study co-author

Current research indicates that long COVID eventually passes on its own slowly over the course of up to two years, with just a small percentage of people still grappling with its symptoms beyond that.

For people currently experiencing extreme fatigue, the options are few.

“The only evidence-based treatments are cognitive behavioral therapy and rehabilitation, which usually refers to a package of behavioral and support interventions including graded exercise,” Dr. Lloyd said.

Dr. Goodfellow said he hopes the study helps raise awareness of the difficulties faced by individuals with severe long COVID.

“I hope we have highlighted how unwell these patients are so that clinicians and the general public can better understand how much they are suffering,” Dr. Goodfellow said.

“In terms of helping people recover, we have highlighted that fatigue is mostly associated with patients’ inability to do day-to-day tasks, and is a key area in which to focus treatments,” he concluded.