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.
Most important points:
- A new study has found that women are more likely to report long-term COVID symptoms than men
- Other risk factors include increasing age, poor physical or mental health, and asthma
- Australian researchers say greater focus on long-term COVID
“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.
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.
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.
Standing up makes your heart beat faster and blood pressure drops, which can lead to severe fatigue, headaches and difficulty concentrating.
With seven million Australians contracting the virus, even if 5 percent of people get long-term COVID, that could mean up to 350,000 people will be affected.
“This is something we really need to focus on, in the scientific community, in the medical community and in public health,” said Dr. short.
“There will be a burden of disease from long-term COVID, but just how important and what it means for the workforce and the health care system, we don’t really know yet.”
Many longtime COVID patients who have contacted the ABC, such as Michelle, have said they could no longer work and struggled with daily life.
Long COVID clinics have been set up in major hospitals in most states and territories that provide rehabilitation, physical therapy, and psychological support, among other things.
However, few drugs can help patients regain the physical and cognitive abilities they had before they got the virus.
“The real difficulty we have with long-term COVID is that we don’t have a great diagnostic test and we don’t have a great treatment,” said Dr. short.
The lab of Dr. Short at the University of Queensland is working on a diagnostic tool for long-term COVID, focusing on the role inflammation plays in the disease.
“If we can understand how long COVID develops, we can develop better treatments for patients who have long-term COVID,” she said.
There are also many studies trying out potential treatments, such as anti-inflammatories or antivirals.
Ms. Answerth is now helping run a Facebook community page for long-term COVID patients.
Given the lack of understanding of the disease, or research into it, the 1,400-member group has become a staple form of support for patients to share their experiences.
“There are men who are active in the group, but it’s mostly women. I see a lot of people who have been active before and say, ‘This has really changed my life,'” she said.
It is for that reason, Ms Answerth hopes any research into the disease will help find new treatments and support for those who have the condition.
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