More than two million people in England may be suffering Covid symptoms more than 12 weeks after initially suffering from at least one coronavirus symptom, new data suggests.
Findings from the React-2 studies showed "a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of Covid-19", with more than one-third of people who had coronavirus reporting symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.
The study, one of the largest of its kind, found people tend to fall into two categories: those with respiratory illness and those with fatigue-related symptoms
Women were more likely to suffer from long Covid, the report found, while the prevalence of symptoms increased with age, with a 3.5% increase in likelihood in each decade of life.
The findings are based on self-reported data from 508,707 adults aged 18 and over who took part in rounds three to five of Imperial College London’s React-2 study carried out between September 2020 and February 2021.
Around a fifth of those surveyed reported having had a coronavirus symptom previously, with more than a third reporting persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.
Around a tenth of those with symptoms said they lasted at least 12 weeks and were severe.
The study, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, indicates that long Covid is higher among women, people who are overweight or obese, those who smoke, people who live in deprived areas, or those who had been admitted to hospital.
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According to the research, persistent Covid-19 symptoms were lower in people of Asian ethnicity.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the React programme at Imperial, said: “Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of Covid-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning.
“Long Covid is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.”
Asked how long symptoms of long Covid might last, Prof Elliott told a press briefing: “There are studies looking at specific elements of post-Covid syndrome."
He continued: "For some people I think they will have long-term consequences. What we don’t know is what the numbers are going to be.”
Helen Ward, Professor of Public Health, Imperial College London, added: “We don’t know how long it might last because we haven’t been here before.”
People with persistent symptoms at 12 weeks fell into two broad groups, researchers found.
In the first, the most common symptoms were tiredness and muscle aches.
The most common symptoms in the second group were shortness of breath affecting normal activities, tightness in the chest, and chest pain. People who were suffering with respiratory problems reported they experienced more severe illness when they first got sick.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Long Covid can have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected. “Studies like this help us to rapidly build our understanding of the impact of the condition and we are using these findings and other new research to develop support and treatments."
To help people suffering the debilitating long-term effects of this virus, the NHS has opened more than 80 long Covid hubs across England.
Last week, the NHS published a £100 million plan to expand support, including £30 million to help GPs improve diagnosis and care for patients with long Covid.
A separate study led by UCL and King’s College London researchers suggests that one in six (17%) middle-aged people who report being infected by coronavirus also report long Covid symptoms.
Earlier this month, an Office for National Statistics show study found there had been a "marked increase" in the number of people experiencing long Covid for at least a year.
Statisticians estimate that one million people in the community had ongoing symptoms in the four weeks to May 2 after contracting the virus at least three months beforehand, the new ONS figures report.