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January 12, 2021

COVID-19 symptoms can linger for months after hospitalization

A large study shows most survivors still have at least one side effect months after discharge

Illness COVID-19
COVID-19 long-haulers study Cai Yang/Xinhua/Sipa USA

A new study suggests many COVID-19 patients once hospitalized in Wuhan, China were still experiencing health issues six months after diagnosis. Above, a medical worker conducts hemodialysis treatment for an uremic patient recovering from COVID-19 at Hankou Hospital in Wuhan, March 21, 2020.

Many COVID-19 survivors continue to experience fatigue, anxiety and sleeping difficulties months after being discharged from the hospital. 

A new study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, provides one of the biggest analyses of the so-called "long-hauler" effects of the coronavirus. 

More than 75% of the 1,733 study participants were still experiencing at least one symptom six months after they were hospitalized in Wuhan, China, the pandemic's original epicenter.

About 63% said they still had fatigue or muscle weakness. Another 26% said they had trouble sleeping and 23% said they experienced anxiety or depression. 

Dr. Steven Deeks, a University of California, San Francisco professor who is leading a study that follows COVID-19 patients for two years, said the findings show the prevalence of the long-lasting symptoms. 

"It shows that a substantial portion of people, far higher than you would expect in the general population, are exhibiting symptoms that are having an impact," Deeks told the New York Times. "And importantly, there’s no specific pathway, there’s multiple different outcomes that occur: mental health stuff and pulmonary stuff and quality-of-life stuff. This provides pretty solid confirmation for what we’re all seeing."

The study had some limitations. It did not evaluate the patients' cognitive function or report whether they were experiencing anxiety or depression before contracting the coronavirus. 

It also did not include the sickest patients. About 75% of the study participants required supplemental oxygen, but did not need ventilators or require high-flow nasal oxygen — treatments reserved for the most severe cases. 

Because it's an observational study, its findings can't directly be linked to COVID-19. To do so, the study needed to compare the outcomes of COVID-19 to people hospitalized with other infections that can cause pneumonia. 

"I would have liked to have seen data on patients admitted with something other than COVID-19 during that period," Dr. Hana El Sahly, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, told NBC News.

Still, the study is believed to be the largest "the largest cohort study with the longest follow-up duration," the study authors noted. 

The patients, whose median age was 57, were interviewed between June and September. They also were given physical exams, lab tests and an aerobic capacity test. 


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