Long Covid: young, female and feeling sick six months after recovery

A survey of over 2,000 cases in Spain shows how the disease can have lingering after-effects

A young woman undergoing a PCR test in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.
A young woman undergoing a PCR test in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.CATI CLADERA (EFE)
Miguel Ángel Criado

A survey in Spain of more than 2,000 people who were declared cured of Covid-19 shows that while the illness itself might have gone, there can still be the aftermath to deal with.

The research, published on November 11, indicates that many who have been through the illness still have symptoms several months later. And the average profile of these “long-haulers” is very different from those who only took two to three weeks to beat the disease: the majority are middle-aged women with no previous health conditions who were not hospitalized after testing positive.

The Spanish Society of General and Family Practitioners (SEMG) started to follow up on patients who officially recovered from the coronavirus but who reported not feeling cured. At least since the summer, an increasing number of people have been reporting extreme fatigue, muscle pain and headaches weeks and even months after the illness should be over. But because resources are being focused on new cases, little has been done about this long version of Covid. Now, SEMG’s survey of 2,120 people, some of whom have been ill since March, has initiated a move to rectify this.

My work is intellectual and I forget the words
Silvia Guerrero, biochemist

“They are women and they are young,” says Dr Pilar Rodríguez Ledo, vice-president and head of research at SEMG, who directed the survey. Specifically, 79% are female, with an average age of 43. Half of those affected are between 36 and 50. The other striking piece of data is the duration of the effects. “The symptoms have an average duration of 185 days, which is more than six months,” says Rodríguez. Some cases have gone on for more than 230 days.

Although there are more than 200 observed symptoms, the most common include fatigue, general malaise, headaches and shortness of breath. Grouped by category, the most recurrent symptoms are the so-called general ones, such as malaise, as well as neurological and psychological ones. Respiratory issues lag at fifth place. “Around 86% have global neurological symptoms,” says Rodríguez. These are not usually apparent at first, but appear later in the form of inability to concentrate or “brain fog.”

The biochemist Silvia Guerrero caught the virus in mid-March and she is still feeling the effects. “I can’t even read two lines, never mind reading a book,” she says. “My work is intellectual and I forget the words.” Guerrero revealed this at a news conference as one of the promoters of the Long Covid Acts, an alliance of several associations of people affected by long-term Covid.

It’s been like waking up in a less intelligent body
Anna Kemp, translator

The translator Anna Kemp is another long Covid case. She first became ill in March and now, eight months later, suffers from shortness of breath, extreme exhaustion and brain fog, which makes concentration an uphill battle. “It’s been like waking up in a less intelligent body,” she says. Both she and Guerrero feel forgotten and complain that long-term Covid patients do not show up in the statistics. “We need support and more research to know why this is happening to us,” she says.

One piece of evidence flagged up by those who question whether long Covid is a separate disease is that no specific damage has been found when tests have been carried out. According to Lorenzo Armenteros, the Covid spokesman for the SEMG, “there is a possibility that we may need a new type of test, or that we may need to search in different places.”

The SEMG is planning to start a clinical investigation into the possible causes of long Covid, by studying a number of the respondents to their survey. “Perhaps the virus has settled somewhere, or has triggered an immune storm with a multi-organ impact,” posits Rodríguez.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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