Michelle Answerth wearing sunglasses and smiling while sitting near the front of a boat.

New research sheds light on who is more likely to develop long-term COVID

Michelle Answerth beams as she recalls spending the warm summer days of her long-service leave late last year with her partner along the coast of Queensland’s tropical north.

“We sailed to Magnetic Island, around Townsville, and then all the way around Queensland, the Whitsundays and then all the way up the coast back to Victoria,” she says.

However, shortly after returning home for Christmas, the 54-year-old contracted COVID-19.

She had few symptoms for the first five or six days, but then got progressively sicker.

“For me, most of the problem was around the body aches,” she says.

She knew little then, but that pain in her body would continue and her infection would change her life as she knew it.

Michelle Answerth sailed along the east coast of Australia on a long leave of service.Provided: Michelle Answerth

Ms. Answerth has long had COVID and has not been able to return to work as a disability support worker due to extensive nerve pain and reduced mobility in her arms.

“I’d be out of breath walking up the stairs at home, out of breath at the top of the stairs, getting up, sitting down — just doing normal things,” she said.

“Besides the pain, I was… [also] I lost movement in my right arm and a little bit in my left arm.”

While some of her symptoms – such as fatigue and brain fog – have eased, Ms Answerth has been unable to maintain her active, pre-COVID lifestyle, which has resulted in her gaining approximately 10 kilograms.

“The first few months were extremely stressful and also quite frightening because I didn’t know what was going on with my body on a cellular level,” she said.

“I still don’t, because there are several studies explaining different theories, but there is no definitive answer.”

Women are more likely to develop long-term COVID, study says

New research published overnight in the scientific journal Nature Communications suggests that Ms Answerth, as a woman in her 50s, is in the top risk group for developing the disease.

According to the Australian government, prolonged COVID-19 involves symptoms that last longer than four weeks.

Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath or chest tightness, brain fog and difficulty with memory and joint pain.

Very little is known about the disease, its cause and how to treat it effectively.

British researchers found that symptoms of long-term COVID are reported more often by women, those in poor health before the pandemic and those in their 50s to 60s.

Researchers from King’s College, London, reviewed data from nearly 7,000 people in health surveys, as well as the electronic health records of more than 1.1 million people diagnosed with COVID-19.

They found that the chance of developing long-term COVID was 50 percent higher in women than in men.

The peer-reviewed data is consistent with findings from other studies that have shown women are more susceptible to long-term COVID, says Kirsty Short, a virologist at the University of Queensland.

“This study is strengthened because of the large sample size and also because they looked at multiple data sources. So I think this study is very strong and robust,” said Dr. short.

dr.  Kirsty Short, dressed in a white lab coat and goggles, standing by a couch covered in lab supplies.
dr. Kirsty Short says there is no good treatment for long-term COVID.ABC News: Marton Dobras

Age seems to be a factor, with your chance of developing COVID long-term increasing until age 70.

In addition, researchers say that having asthma increases your chances of getting the post-viral disease.

Interestingly, they found no strong evidence of associations of long-term COVID with a previous medical history of diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

“Given the magnitude of the pandemic, even a small proportion of individuals with long-term COVID will bear a large burden of permanent illness,” the study authors said.

Thousands of patients, but no real treatments

Many Australians are struggling with prolonged COVID.

While there are no official prevalence figures here, foreign data suggests that between 10 and 30 percent of people who contract COVID-19 will have ongoing health problems.

Many patients can develop a condition known as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.

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