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Most COVID Long-Haulers Still Having Symptoms 15 Months Later

WEDNESDAY, May 25, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Many COVID-19 patients who didn't wind up in the hospital continue to battle lingering health issues more than a year later, a new study finds.

These long-haulers continue to suffer neurologic symptoms, fatigue and a compromised quality of life long after their initial infection.

"We were surprised by the persistence of most of the debilitating neurologic symptoms of our patients, and by the late appearance of symptoms that suggest dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system," said Dr. Igor Koralnik, who oversees the Neuro COVID-19 Clinic at Northwestern Medicine, in Chicago.

For the study, his team studied the development of neurologic symptoms in non-hospitalized COVID-19 long-haulers at the clinic. It has treated nearly 1,400 long-haul patients from across the United States.

On average, long-haulers continued to have brain fog, numbness/tingling, headache, dizziness, blurred vision, tinnitus and fatigue for 15 months after their initial infection, the investigators found.

When assessing patients six to nine months after their first clinic visit, the researchers found that their heart rate, blood pressure variation and gastrointestinal symptoms increased. At the same time, their loss of taste and smell decreased.

Other studies have yielded similar results.

"This new study is novel and reports the longest follow-up period of neurologic symptoms impacting non-hospitalized patients suffering from long COVID anywhere in the world," said Koralnik, who is chief of neuro-infectious diseases and global neurology.

This study focused on patients who were initially evaluated between May and November 2020. Their initial COVID symptoms were mild and they were never hospitalized for pneumonia or low oxygen levels.

The findings are a follow up to a March 2021 study by the same team. In that study, 85% of long-haulers had four or more neurologic symptoms that affected their quality of life. Thinking and memory were also affected in some.

The investigators found no significant change in frequency of most neurologic symptoms between first and follow-up appointments.

This included brain fog, with 81% experiencing it initially and 71% at the follow up; numbness and tingling (69% versus 65%); headache (67% versus 54%); dizziness (50% versus 54%); blurred vision (34% versus 44%); and fatigue (87% versus 81%).

At the initial visit, 63% reported loss of taste, compared to 27% at the follow up; and loss of smell dropped from 58% to 21%.

But 56% had heart rate and blood pressure variation at the follow up, compared to 35% initially. And 48% had gastrointestinal symptoms, versus 27% to start with, the findings showed.

While about 77% had been vaccinated for COVID-19, the researchers found it did not affect thinking and memory skills or fatigue.

"Vaccination didn't cure long COVID symptoms, but didn't worsen them either, which is a reason given by some long-haulers for not getting vaccinated," Koralnik said in a Northwestern news release. "As new variants emerge and the number of patients impacted by long COVID rises, we're now focusing our research on understanding the root cause of long COVID. We're also devising interventions to improve the management of those patients and find the best treatment options for them."

On average, participants were 43 years of age. Nearly three-quarters were female.

The findings were published online May 24 in Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on long COVID conditions.

SOURCE: Northwestern Medicine, news release, May 24, 2022

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