British Columbia

More than 75% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients report symptoms months later: UBC study

Half of the study's participants reported trouble breathing three months after contracting the virus.

Half of study's participants reported trouble breathing three months after contracting the virus

Healthcare workers at Vancouver General Hospital's COVID-19 unit. (Vancouver Coastal Health)

More than three-quarters of COVID-19 patients who end up in hospital are still reporting symptoms such as difficulty breathing or sleeping months after contracting the virus, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia. 

The study found that 76 per cent of those surveyed reported at least one symptom three months after being discharged from the hospital, while more than half were experiencing multiple lingering effects.

"We wanted to make sure we [looked] beyond simply lung problems," said Christopher Carlsten, one of the authors of the study and head of respiratory medicine at UBC's School of Population and Public Health.

"What we found out, unfortunately, is that the complaints went much beyond that."

The two most common symptoms reported months later — each felt by roughly half of the participants — were trouble breathing and a general diminishment of quality of life, including impacts on one's mobility, ability to perform routine activities and mental health. 

Nearly half of the 78 people surveyed said they had difficulty sleeping, and a little more than 40 per cent reported still feeling frail around the third month mark. Meanwhile, just under a quarter noted a persistent cough. 

The study's results echo other research that has shown a myriad of chronic health effects in people long after being diagnosed with COVID-19, from brain fog to heart damage to joint pain

"I think people are surprised with how long the symptoms have been lasting," said Alyson Wong, another co-author of the study, which was recently published in the European Respiratory Journal.

"If someone had the annual flu, we would expect them to, on average, recover within three months. But we're not seeing that with COVID."

Besides reported symptoms, the researchers found lung abnormalities in a staggering 88 per cent of participants in the study.

The majority of COVID-19 cases are mild, but some of those patients deal with the effects of the virus for weeks or even months after infection. 2:11

Though the study consisted only of people who were hospitalized due to COVID-19, nearly 60 per cent had no pre-existing health conditions. 

Of all participants, 64 per cent were male. The average age of the cohort was 62 years old. Slightly less than a third of participants were current or former smokers. 

"I hope this provides validation [to people with ongoing symptoms] that it's not just you, but it's actually a large collective of patients post-COVID who are experiencing these things," said Wong. 

Meanwhile, Carlsten hopes studies like this push physicians to take so-called 'long-haul' syndrome more seriously. 

People still battling the illness from a hospital bed justifiably receive more attention, said Carlsten, but those struggling with less severe, daily symptoms months later need care, too.

"This is a real syndrome."

Researchers plan to monitor the study's participants for at least two years.

With files from On the Coast

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