Long COVID worse than cancer? Scientists say ‘devastating’ fatigue can have bigger impact on quality of life

LONDON — Is long COVID really worse than having some forms of cancer? A new study claims that lingering COVID-related symptoms such as extreme fatigue could significantly impact a patient’s quality of life, more so than some forms of the disease. Researchers say “devastating” fatigue most profoundly affects the day-to-day lives of those grappling with this often “invisible” condition.

The research, published in BMJ Open, assessed the impact of long COVID on the daily lives of over 3,700 British patients. These patients, referred to a long COVID clinic, used a digital app as part of their National Health Service’s treatment for the condition. The app provided questionnaires for patients to illustrate how long COVID was affecting their day-to-day activities. It covered areas such as fatigue, depression, anxiety, breathlessness, “brain fog,” and their overall quality of life.

The study, spearheaded by scientists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Exeter, found that many long COVID patients were severely ill. On average, their fatigue scores were worse or comparable to those of individuals with cancer-related anemia or severe kidney disease.

Furthermore, the patients’ health-related quality of life scores were lower than those of individuals with advanced metastatic cancers, such as stage IV lung cancer. In a broader context, the researchers discovered that long COVID’s impact on patients’ daily activities surpassed that of stroke patients and was on par with those suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

“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,” says Dr. Henry Goodfellow from UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health, who co-led the study alongside the late Professor Elizabeth Murray.

“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,” the study author adds in a media release.

man confusion fatigue
(Credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels)

Beyond its individual impacts, the research team suggested that long COVID could also have a “significant” economic and social effect on society. Patients referred to a long COVID clinic typically experienced symptoms consistent with long COVID for at least 12 weeks following acute infection.

Over 90 percent of the long COVID patients using the app were between the ages of 18 to 65. More than half (51%) revealed they were unable to work for at least one day in the previous month, with one-fifth (20%) completely unable to work. The majority of patients (71%) were women. Given that working-age women constitute the majority of the health and social care workforce, the researchers emphasized that long COVID’s impact on their ability to function could exacerbate pressure on already strained services.

“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,” Dr. Goodfellow says.

According to a 2022 report from the CDC, roughly one in 13 U.S. adults experience long COVID symptoms. Alongside fatigue, these individuals typically experienced breathlessness, anxiety, depression, and brain fog. This study is the first to shed light on how long COVID impacts daily functioning and health-related quality of life in patients referred for specialist rehabilitation in long COVID clinics across England.

“Our findings show that fatigue should be an important focus for clinical care and the design of rehabilitation services,” Dr Goodfellow continues. “Post-COVID assessment services should consider focusing on assessing and treating fatigue to maximize the recovery and return to work for sufferers of long COVID.”

“Long COVID is an invisible condition, and many people are left trying to manage significant changes to how they can function. Shockingly, our research has revealed that long COVID can leave people with worse fatigue and quality of life than some cancers, yet the support and understanding is not at the same level. We urgently need more research to enable the development of evidence-based services to support people trying to manage this debilitating new condition,” adds study co-author Professor William Henley from University of Exeter Medical School.

This poignant research stresses the importance of continued investigation into the comprehensive impact of long COVID on patients’ lives. With a better understanding, the medical community can equip itself with targeted strategies and resources to address the unique challenges presented by this condition, ultimately aiming for improved patient care and support.

Long COVID has 7 persistent symptoms

COVID researchers have been studying long COVID for almost as long as the viral itself. While some teams have identified more than 200 symptoms with a link to long COVID, one study argues there are typically only seven which patients persistently experience for weeks, months, and possibly years.

The seven long COVID symptoms are:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Hair loss
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Obesity

“Despite an overwhelming number of long COVID symptoms previously reported by other studies, we only found a few symptoms specifically related to an infection from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” says corresponding author Chi-Ren Shyu, director of the MU Institute for Data Science and Informatics, in a university release.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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