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Post-illness symptoms like long Covid are probably more common than we think

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In recent months, long Covid has received a great deal of media and public attention. Research has found that as many as one in four of those infected with Covid suffer from chronic long-term symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, abdominal pain, heart problems, fatigue, anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment and other conditions.

It is a difficult and complex illness, and we must do much more to help those who are struggling with it. At the same time, it is important to realise that rather than being a strange special case, long Covid is probably part of a broader phenomenon that affects many more people. In recent years, doctors and researchers have increasingly realised that many of those who survive an illness of any kind, or who go through serious physical trauma, are at high risk for a range of debilitating and chronic physical, cognitive and mental health symptoms – problems that closely resemble long Covid.

As medicine has advanced, clinicians have learned how to save hundreds of thousands of severely ill or injured patients who would have previously died. Although this is a remarkable accomplishment, however, in many cases, survival does not mean complete recovery: some patients find that their bodies, brains and psyches continue to bear the scars of what they have gone through.

One non-Covid study found that a year after hospitalisation, a third of patients with severe respiratory failure or shock had significant cognitive impairment. Another found that between a quarter and a third of patients who were treated in the ICU had significant and long-lasting symptoms of anxiety, depression or PTSD. Researchers have found similar results for survivors of other medical conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and ALS.

Unfortunately, people with long Covid, as well as other chronic post-illness symptoms, often find that the medical establishment doesn’t understand their experience, and so minimises or questions it. This is not surprising: clinicians tend to pay less attention to how patients with severe illness do once they are out of mortal danger, or once symptoms extend beyond an arbitrary time frame.

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Source: The Guardian, 12 September 2021

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