(© Dzmitry - stock.adobe.com)

🔑 Key Findings:

  • Long COVID’s symptoms did not differ from lingering impairments from other illnesses like the flu.
  • The number of patients with lingering symptoms was similar between people with COVID and those with other respiratory illnesses.

BARCELONA, Spain — Is it time to stop using the term long COVID? According to scientists in Australia, the answer is yes. Researchers from Queensland Health have found that long COVID shares similarities with other post-viral syndromes like seasonal influenza, without showing evidence of causing more severe functional impairments a year after infection.

This new research indicates that the impact of long COVID on health systems is more a matter of the large numbers infected over a short period than the severity of the symptoms or the level of functional impairment it causes.

This study, presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Barcelona, contributes to an ongoing dialogue about the long-term effects of COVID-19, especially in the context of a highly vaccinated population like that of Queensland, Australia, where exposure to the Omicron variant was widespread. Previously published research in BMJ Public Health by the same team found no significant difference in ongoing symptoms and functional impairments between COVID-19 and influenza 12 weeks post-infection.

Australia’s low rates of long COVID are attributed to its high vaccination rates and the population’s exposure to the Omicron variant as COVID restrictions were lifted. Symptoms associated with long COVID, including fatigue, brain fog, cough, shortness of breath, changes in smell and taste, dizziness, and rapid or irregular heartbeat, appear similar to those experienced with other respiratory illnesses.

Doctor listening to coronavirus / COVID-19 patient having trouble breathing
Researchers have found that long COVID shares similarities with other post-viral syndromes like seasonal influenza, without showing evidence of causing more severe impairments a year after infection. (© Алина Троева – stock.adobe.com)

To delve deeper into the impact of long COVID, researchers surveyed 5,112 symptomatic individuals in Queensland 18 and older. This group included 2,399 adults with PCR-confirmed COVID-19 infections and 2,713 adults who were either PCR negative for COVID-19 or had tested positive for influenza but exhibited symptoms of a respiratory illness. This survey was conducted between May and June 2022, with follow-ups a year later in 2023 via a questionnaire delivered through SMS, querying ongoing symptoms and the extent of functional impairment in daily activities.

According to the findings, 16 percent of respondents reported ongoing symptoms a year later, with only 3.6 percent experiencing moderate-to-severe functional impairments. Adjusting for factors like age, sex, and First Nation status, the analysis found no significant difference in the likelihood of experiencing moderate-to-severe functional limitations between those who had been COVID-19 positive and those with other respiratory symptoms (3.0% vs 4.1%). These rates were comparable even when COVID-19 positive cases were compared to influenza cases.

An interesting note from the study indicated that moderate-to-severe functional impairment was more likely among individuals over 50 and those experiencing symptoms like dizziness, muscle pain, shortness of breath, post-exertional malaise, and fatigue.

“In health systems with highly vaccinated populations, long COVID may have appeared to be a distinct and severe illness because of high volumes of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic. However, we found that the rates of ongoing symptoms and functional impairment are indistinguishable from other post-viral illnesses,” says Dr John Gerrard, chief health officer of Queensland Health, in a media release. “These findings underscore the importance of comparing post-COVID-19 outcomes with those following other respiratory infections, and of further research into post-viral syndromes.”

Dr. Gerrard advocates for moving away from the term “long COVID.”

“They wrongly imply there is something unique and exceptional about longer term symptoms associated with this virus. This terminology can cause unnecessary fear, and in some cases, hypervigilance to longer symptoms that can impede recovery,” explains Dr. Gerrard.

Researchers caution that their findings represent associations rather than prevalence rates and acknowledge limitations, including the inability to identify hospitalized individuals or those with pre-existing conditions within the study cohort. They also note the lower risk of long COVID during the Omicron wave, possibly influenced by the high vaccination rate in Queensland and the characteristics of the Omicron variant itself.

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