Long COVID: could you be at risk?
Posted on 18 August 2021
Doctors are now seeing patients who have recovered from COVID-19 but are still experiencing lingering symptoms long afterwards. This is known as long COVID, and it more often affects women.
It’s what everyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 dreads: instead of passing within the expected 10-14 days, their symptoms linger for weeks or even months. This is the debilitating world of long COVID; a condition that appears to have especially significant implications for women.
According to Dr Rikus Louw, a physician at Mediclinic Stellenbosch, long COVID (post-acute sequelae of COVID-19) is typically diagnosed if symptoms persist for four weeks or longer. Those symptoms are many and varied, ranging from pain, to breathing difficulties, hyperlipidaemia (raised levels of fat particles in the blood), fatigue and hypertension. Abnormal heart rate, anaemia and anxiety have also been reported.
Interestingly, recent studies show that women are more likely to report these symptoms than men – although studies have not yet revealed why this may be so, Dr Louw notes. Overseas, several theories have been put forward to explain this medical mystery: on a purely practical level, women tend to be more in tune with their bodies, and are also more likely to report symptoms. Other researchers suggest that women, especially those of childbearing age, react more aggressively towards pathogens because their immune systems are primed to protect their bodies during pregnancy. Yet another suggestion holds that women are inherently more likely to experience autoimmune conditions than men; possibly because of the presence of oestrogen, which creates a predisposition towards inflammation.
Most of these theories haven’t yet been scientifically proven, and given that certain symptoms of long COVID are, in fact, more prevalent in men, it’s clear that a lot more research into the topic is required.
In the meantime, what is known is that long COVID tends to impact people who’ve been afflicted with especially severe symptoms and reactions to the virus. “Patients who were very ill or were hospitalised had a 50% chance of developing long COVID symptoms,” says Dr Louw, citing data contained in a White Paper released by FAIR Health. “In contrast, only 27% of patients who were symptomatic went on to experience long COVID.” Luckiest of all were asymptomatic patients: symptoms persisted in only 19% of these cases.
Most patients in the grips of this sapping condition speak of their frustration and fear – after all, one of the greatest fallouts of this pandemic is the constant state of uncertainty that many experience, which can lead to mental health issues like anxiety. An illness that remains, as yet, poorly understood and that has no clear timelines or treatment certainly contributes to that uncertainty. But, says Dr Louw, there is good news: many symptoms, like hypertension and hyperlipidaemia, can be managed with appropriate medication, and can be expected to improve over time.
In other cases, specialists, such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists and physicians, may be able to provide supportive treatment. It may also help to consult a psychologist who can help in dealing with emotional issues that arise from long COVID.
“Most of these symptoms last up to nine months, although there have been cases where they’ve persisted for longer,” adds Dr Louw. “Going forward, we’ll need to set up long COVID clinics where patients can be properly managed and monitored so that they can return to their original state of health and wellbeing.”