Study: 3 in 4 COVID patients still have symptoms 6 months after getting sick

WUHAN, China — For COVID-19 patients, their battle with the deadly virus can last weeks or even months. A new study finds even after patients leave the hospital the symptoms of coronavirus may linger for a long time. Researchers in China say 76 percent of hospitalized COVID patients still experience at least one symptom of their illness six months later.

The study reveals the most common symptoms patients continue to feel is fatigue or muscle weakness. More than six in 10 people (63%) of the 1,733 patients examined experienced this problem. Another 26 percent report having difficulty sleeping and 23 percent experienced anxiety or depression. The patients in the new report were discharged from Jin Yin-tan Hospital in Wuhan between January and May of 2020. Researchers began in-person follow-up visits with this group after an average of 186 days post-hospitalization.

Aside from lingering symptoms, study authors discovered patients who had suffered from more severe COVID infections are more likely to now have impaired lung function. They are also more likely to have abnormalities appear in their chest imaging scans, which could signal organ damage. Researchers say few studies have looked at the long-term health impacts of coronavirus as the pandemic is still ongoing globally.

“Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, we are only beginning to understand some of its long-term effects on patients’ health. Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital, and highlights a need for post-discharge care, particularly for those who experience severe infections. Our work also underscores the importance of conducting longer follow-up studies in larger populations in order to understand the full spectrum of effects that COVID-19 can have on people,” says Professor Bin Cao from National Center for Respiratory Medicine, China-Japan Friendship Hospital, and Capital Medical University in a media release.

Worse COVID infections lead to more health problems later

The study performed several exams on the COVID patients to see how they were faring after their hospital stay. Researchers gave participants a routine checkup, lab tests, and put them through a six-minute walking test to gauge endurance levels. From the over 1,700 patients involved, 390 also completed further testing to measure lung function.

The results reveal COVID patients with more severe cases of infection are increasingly likely to suffer long-term damage than those with a mild case. Of the 86 participants needing a ventilator in Jin Yin-tan Hospital, 56 percent now suffer from diffusion impairment. This is a reduction in the flow of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream.

Only 29 percent of patients who only needed oxygen therapy and 22 percent of those who did not need any extra oxygen while in the hospital developed diffusion impairment. Patients who required ventilation for COVID-19 also performed worse in the six-minute walking test than other participants.

Along with common lung issues typical of coronavirus, the study discovered some patients developed kidney issues following their hospital stay. Of the 822 patients who had normal kidney function when they entered the hospital, the study reveals 107 (13%) suffered from reduced organ function during their follow-up six months later.

Risk of reinfection rising?

Blood tests on 94 Wuhan participants also uncovered the amount of neutralizing antibodies in the body drops significantly in the months after a patient’s peak level of infection. The number of neutralizing antibodies fell by 52.5 percent compared to levels measured while the group dealt with COVID-19. Study authors believe this puts recovering patients at greater risk of catching the virus again.

The team notes that their antibody test only worked with a limited number of patients and they will also need to study how these results compare to people dealing with mild cases of the virus that don’t require hospitalization.

“Even though the study offers a comprehensive clinical picture of the aftermath of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients, only 4% were admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU), rendering the information about the long-term consequences in this particular cohort inconclusive,” says a team from the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri IRCCS, Italy — who was not involved in the study.

“Nonetheless, previous research on patient outcomes after ICU stays suggests that several COVID-19 patients who were critically ill while hospitalized will subsequently face impairments regarding their cognitive and mental health and/or physical function far beyond their hospital discharge.”

The study appears in the journal The Lancet.

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