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Experts say long-haul COVID-19 symptoms can occur in people with mild and moderate cases. RainStar/Getty Images
  • Researchers say people with long-term COVID-19 symptoms are now reporting mobility difficulties and lung issues.
  • They note that these long-haul symptoms aren’t limited to people who were hospitalized.
  • These long-term symptoms are affecting worker productivity as well as adding extra stress to our healthcare system, researchers say.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than half of people hospitalized with COVID-19 still experience diminished lung function and mobility problems 4 months after being discharged.

A study published last week followed 238 people in Northern Italy who had COVID-19 and were hospitalized between March and June.

“Little is known about the lasting effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection in survivors of COVID-19. In this cohort study, we found that a significant proportion of survivors of COVID-19 experienced respiratory or functional impairment 4 months after hospital discharge,” the study authors wrote.

The researchers stated that 52 percent of the study participants had less than 80 percent normal lung function. In addition, 16 percent of the participants had less than 60 percent normal lung function.

Another 54 percent reported difficulty walking.

The study is the latest in a growing body of research into long-term COVID-19 symptoms, often referred to as “long-haul COVID-19.”

“Depending on which study you look at it’s upward of two-thirds of people. It’s probably between half and two-thirds of people have some symptom at 6 months,” Dr. Christian Sandrock, MPH, FCCP, the health director of critical care and a professor of medicine at the University of California Davis, told Healthline.

“There are a multitude of symptoms that range from cardiovascular, chest pain, shortness of breath, high heart rate, through respiratory or the lungs where there’s a high number of patients who are short of breath, low oxygen levels, to the neurologic symptoms where you have loss of smell, loss of taste, brain fog, depression, forgetfulness,” he said. “There’s a whole host of different things we’re seeing.”

Sandrock said it’s not uncommon for people in intensive care units (ICUs) to experience some symptoms months after they’re discharged, even for those without COVID-19.

“If you have an influenza that puts you in the ICU for a month or two, or bad appendicitis, or sepsis, we know that you’re going to have forgetfulness, PTSD, memory loss, fatigue, lethargy, sleep disturbances at 6 and 12 months after that ICU stay. We know that,” he said.

Long-haul COVID-19 symptoms are also being seen in those who only had a mild acute case of the disease and were never hospitalized.

“There’s a big group of people who get COVID-19 acutely, but they never really get sick in the sense they’re in the hospital. They’re sick at home,” Sandrock said. “But then these symptoms persist for months and months. So it’s not just the ICU stay. It’s a mixture of two different kinds of things we see going on.”

Dr. Aruna Subramanian is an infectious disease physician with Stanford Health Care in California. She’s currently leading a study on long-term COVID-19 symptoms.

“Starting about May/June we started getting patients referred to our clinic with ongoing symptoms and realized there was a longer-term problem than just the acute COVID-19,” Subramanian told Healthline.

The preliminary results of the Stanford study are similar to the findings of the study undertaken in Italy.

“In our 118 patients that we looked at, the vast majority still had at least one symptom at 3 to 4 months — 64 percent of the patients who had not been hospitalized had at least one symptom. Usually most common ones were fatigue… and shortness of breath,” she said.

Subramanian added that 82 percent of people who were hospitalized still reported at least one symptom. She said 40 percent had some level of impairment at work and 11 percent had to actually miss work.

At his hospital in California, Sandrock said there have been healthcare workers who became sick with COVID-19 in March and couldn’t come back to work.

They had shortness of breath, were unable to walk down the hallway, and couldn’t perform their daily duties.

“That was a physical sense. Their mind was sharp,” Sandrock said. “Then there’s other people where they have a complete inability to concentrate and focus, where their mind isn’t sharp but they don’t have a high heart rate and shortness of breath. It’s still impacting quite a few people.”

Experts said the impact long-term COVID-19 symptoms could have on the healthcare system is concerning.

“When you’ve had people with mild COVID-19 having long-term symptoms, we’re talking about tens of millions of people with the infection and even if a small fraction have very severe symptoms that can really have a major impact,” Subramanian said.

“Our efforts at prevention and mitigation of this pandemic are even more important because of the long-term symptoms,” she added.

For those living with extended COVID-19 symptoms, sometimes referred to as long haulers, the options are limited.

“What we’re seeing is some people are recovering, but they’re recovering very, very slowly. If you are improving, it’s by baby steps. There are some people who aren’t improving. We don’t have great options,” Sandrock said.

Subramanian agrees.

“We’re still trying to figure out where the problems are and then we can figure out what interventions can be helpful,” she said.

“We have to think about whether inhalers, different medications that improve airway irritability, airway constriction, whether those would help long term,” she added. “I’ve seen them help, especially in the first few months after COVID-19 in people who want to get back to exercise and they’re not able to because of shortness of breath. Sometimes a variety of inhalers help in those cases.”

But the best way to avoid long-haul COVID-19 is to not to contract the disease.

“The most important thing is to try to avoid getting sick in the first place, and that’s why mitigation measures like masks and social distancing and doing all the things people have been trying their best to do are so important,” Subramanian said.

“People should take it seriously even if they’re young and healthy. Everybody should take it seriously and do their part,” she added.