9 questions about long Covid it’s important to have answers to this winter

    Published: 07 December 2021. Written in by Lauren Clark.

    While coronavirus symptoms may pass quickly, some people suffer long-term effects. We answer your frequently asked questions on the illness.

    Many people who catch Covid-19 tend to feel unwell in bed for a week or two before recovering. However, since the pandemic began, another small but significant group has emerged: those suffering from long Covid. According to the Office For National Statistics, more than a million people in the UK report having symptoms lasting longer than four weeks after they were infected. While it is unclear exactly what proportion of people who battle the virus will go on to experience this, a University of Oxford study found that around a third of patients are affected, to some degree, in the three-to-six months after they first became ill.

     We’re now entering winter, with flu cases and other common colds on the rise. Many of their symptoms overlap with those of Covid-19 – and also long Covid. Statistics from Brandwatch suggest that the prospect of contracting it and not realising is on many people’s minds with the number of conversations around the lack of diagnosis up 9%. Analysis of conversations around the condition on social media shows that – while people may be feeling less anxious about it – they are curious about everything from the most common symptoms to possible cures, and whether having a booster jab will offer protection. While research into the condition is still in the early stages, scientists are beginning to discover more about it so that healthcare professionals can best support patients. Here are the answers to the most-searched-for questions.

     

    How long does Covid-19 last?

    If you have tested positive for the virus, one of your first thoughts may be how long you’ll be feeling poorly with some of the key symptoms. As a reminder they are, according to the NHS, a high temperature, a loss or change in sense of smell or taste and a new, continuous cough. Ultimately, it’s hard to determine exactly when you’ll be back fresh on your feet because recovery rates from the virus vary significantly. The health service states that most people feel better within a few days or weeks, with the majority making a full recovery within 12 weeks. They note that you can help this process along by getting lots of rest, staying well-hydrated and taking painkillers as necessary.

     

    How long is Covid-19 contagious for?

    As we know well from social-distancing measures, the virus can easily be passed between you and your loved ones – which is why adhering to self-isolation, when required, is so important. The government has warned that you can infect others for around two days before your symptoms start to show, and you can then remain contagious for up to 10 days after this point. One study found that ‘peak infectivity’ lies within the first five days of symptoms, but the ‘live’ virus can hang around for more than a week longer. So always stick to the guidelines.

     

    Can you get Covid-19 again after 90 days?

    Unfortunately, yes. After having the virus for the first time you are well-protected because, as the US National Institutes of Health explains, your immune cells and proteins circulating in your body are now primed to recognise and kill it. However this natural immunity will eventually wane as the weeks pass, and we know natural immunity doesn’t necessarily protect you against variants in circulation, only against the virus form you were infected with in the first place. It is currently unclear at what point this happens; research by King’s College London found that antibody levels decreased over three months, while a study by Public Health England showed that most people are protected for up to five months. Further evidence has indicated that some could be reinfected within a year. So even if you’ve had it before, it’s always worth taking steps to keep yourself and others safe, which the government suggests can include keeping your distance, practicing good hand hygiene and wearing a mask.

     

    What is long Covid?

    Some people may still feel unwell and experience Covid-19 symptoms, for longer than four weeks after their initial infection. For an even smaller proportion, symptoms may persist for over 12 weeks post-infection. This has come to be called ‘long Covid’ – or sometimes ‘post-Covid syndrome’. Guidelines for healthcare workers put together by NICE state that it can be defined as symptoms lasting for at least this length of time which can’t be explained by another cause. According to the NHS, the chances of developing the condition are not linked to how ill you were when you first became infected. This means that while you may have experienced mild symptoms, which you were able to manage at home without hospital treatment, you could still not be back to full health months later.

     

    What are the symptoms of long Covid?

    The list is lengthy and varied. According to the NHS, the most common symptoms include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, difficulty sleeping, heart palpitations, dizziness, pins and needles, headaches, change in taste or smell, and joint pain. Their severity differs between individuals, with some sufferers reporting struggling to do simple daily tasks like showering or shopping. One study found that many are still unable after six months to return to work in a full-time capacity.

     

    How long do long Covid symptoms last?

    This remains unclear, since research is still in the very early stages. The main challenge is that, as noted by the BMJ, scientists aren’t yet exactly certain what causes the condition. It is thought that it may be due to changes to the immune system, or linked to the injury of organs – including the lungs, heart and brain. Experts are also researching a possible connection to the condition myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) – the definite cause of which is also unknown – that can leave sufferers unwell for years.

     

    How can we cure long Covid?

    Science hasn’t yet been able to find a cure. However, this doesn’t mean that if you have been diagnosed with long Covid, you can’t take steps to give your body the best chance of a full recovery. Do seek support from your GP, who may refer you to specialists for extra tests and even to a long Covid clinic. Many organisations are also offering detailed advice on their websites, like the British Heart Foundation, who advise preserving your energy by pacing yourself, as well as interspersing your day with short rests, and also taking steps to boost your mental wellbeing. While very gradually increasing your activity levels will help your physical and psychological health, the ME Association draws on recent research from NICE in warning that you “cannot exercise your way out of post Covid-19 fatigue”, and can even set your recovery back. More advice on managing symptoms can be found on the NHS’s Your Covid Recovery website.

     

    How can you tell the difference between the ‘super cold’ and long Covid?

    Concerns about the ‘super cold’ and a potentially vicious flu season have dominated dinner-party discussions and social media chats in recent weeks. But if you’re still recovering weeks on from Covid-19, it is understandable if you are wondering whether you are battling either of these – or long Covid. After all, there are many overlapping symptoms. Firstly, it’s important to confirm whether you have the virus again. The NHS states that you should always get a PCR test if you are experiencing a fever, new or continuous cough and changes in smell or taste. If that comes back negative, it may be difficult to tell exactly why you are feeling run down. Consult your doctor if necessary, and remember that the ‘medicine’ for all is essentially the same: plenty of rest.

     

    When should I get my Covid-19 booster?

    One way to reduce your chances of getting Covid-19 – and therefore lower the possibility of developing long Covid – is to accept the offer of a booster jab. According to the NHS, these can be taken up by the at-risk who had their second jab at least six months ago – including those over 50 years old, as well as frontline health and social care workers. Having this extra dose is important because it will help give you longer-lasting protection against the virus. Research by Imperial College London and Oxford University found that immunity provided by being double-jabbed gradually starts to decline in the three months after the second vaccine. So, if you are eligible, book in for yours now.

     

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