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Long COVID can impact fatigue and quality of life worse than some cancers

Published: 09 June 2023

A new study funded by NIHR has found that fatigue is the symptom long COVID patients are most affected by. Long COVID can also have a worse effect on quality of life than some types of cancer.

Researchers at UCL and the University of Exeter examined the impact of long COVID on more than 3,750 patients. All patients had been referred to an NHS long COVID clinic and used a digital app as part of their treatment plan.

In order to be referred to a long COVID clinic, a patient must have had symptoms for at least 12 weeks after an acute infection.

Patients were asked to complete questionnaires regarding how long COVID was affecting them. Questions included the impact of long COVID on daily life, levels of fatigue, depression, anxiety, breathlessness, brain fog and their quality of life.

Results showed that many long COVID patients reported being seriously unwell. Fatigue scores were worse or similar to those with cancer-related anaemia or severe kidney disease. Long COVID patients’ health-related quality of life scores were also lower than those with advanced cancers. In addition, the impact of long COVID on the daily activities of patients was worse than that of stroke patients and comparable to those with Parkinson’s disease.

Study co-lead Dr Henry Goodfellow, UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health said: “Up to around 17% of people who get COVID go on to develop long COVID. However, the impact of the condition on patients’ day-to-day lives isn’t fully understood. Our results have found that long COVID can have a devastating effect on the lives of patients – with fatigue having the biggest impact on everything from social activities to work, chores and maintaining close relationships.”

Economic and social impact

Researchers also believe that long COVID could have a significant economic and social impact on the country.

Over 90% of long COVID patients using the app were of working age (18-65). 51% said they had been unable to work for at least one day in the previous month, and 20% were unable to work at all. Women made up 71% of participants. Since a majority of the health and social care workforce is made up of women, the impact of long COVID on their ability to work may increase pressures on services.

Dr Goodfellow said: “We hope that a greater understanding of the symptoms and impact of long COVID in these patients will help the NHS and policymakers to target limited resources by adapting existing services and designing new ones to better meet the needs of patients with long COVID.”

The Office for National Statistics reported around 1.4 million people in the UK had symptoms of long COVID as of July 2022. However, this is the first study to report on the impact of long COVID on daily functioning and quality of life in patients undergoing specialist treatment in England.

The patients involved in the study were already under treatment, so it is likely that they had worse symptoms than those who weren’t receiving treatment. The researchers do not have access to information of those long COVID patients who are not being treated through long COVID clinics.

This research was carried out alongside partners at Southampton University, University of Exeter, Barts Health NHS Trust, University College London Hospitals NHS Trust, Royal Free Hospital, and Living With Ltd. It was funded by the Health and Social Care Delivery Research (HSDR) programme.

The results of this study were published in BMJ Open on Thursday 8 June 2023.

Read more about the study here

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