Long Covid: how high is the risk really?

Millions of people in different countries have not only become acquainted with Sars-CoV-2, but also with Long Covid. Most had previously had a mild course of the disease. How high is the individual risk for the consequences of a corona infection?

For some, the bad end comes when the actual illness has been overcome: Anyone who gets infected with Sars-CoV-2 often suffers from fatigue, poor concentration, and shortness of breath months later. As quickly became apparent during the course of the pandemic, this also applies to those who were not hit so hard at first. Doctors refer to these late effects as long or post covid.

long covid risks

Nine out of ten people affected previously had a mild course

A large overview study now shows how high the risk is of developing Long Covid after a Sars-CoV-2 infection. A surprising result: Nine out of ten Long Covid sufferers previously had only a mild or moderate course of the disease.

A team led by Sarah Wulf Hanson carried out the most comprehensive data analysis on this topic to date. This included 54 studies with a total of 1.2 million people from 22 countries – including Germany.

Fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath

The researchers classified all cases in which the patients reported suffering from one or more of the following three main long-Covid symptoms for at least three months after infection and for a period of at least two months as long-Covid:

  • persistent fatigue with physical pain or mood swings
  • cognitive problems/ “brain fog” (forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating)
  • persistent breathing problems (shortness of breath, persistent cough)

Other complaints from the comprehensive list of possible Long Covid symptoms were not considered – such as muscle pain (myalgia) or loss of taste.

At least one of the three main symptoms applied to 6.2 percent of those previously infected with Sars-CoV-2. Experts estimate that 60 to 80 percent of the population in Europe has contracted the virus. Extrapolated to the German population, this means: Three to four million people suffered or are suffering from Long Covid.

Almost half of intensive care patients affected

In the case of more severe disease progression, the risk of Long Covid was higher for the individual patient – and given the devastation that the virus can wreak in the body, that is not surprising. The long-Covid probability for those treated in intensive care was 45 percent, for the other patients who had to be treated in hospital because of Covid, it was 27 percent.

Nevertheless, the results show that Long Covid also poses a real risk for people with mild and moderate courses. 6.2 percent, which means about one in 17 people.

Women are twice as likely to be affected

This was especially true for women: They developed Long Covid twice as often as men. That could be because Long Covid could be due to an autoimmune reaction in at least a good fraction of cases. Other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatism, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes are also much more common in women than in men.

The long Covid risk was lowest for children and adolescents under 20: they were half as likely to fall ill as adult men.

No data on the omicron wave yet

The figures cannot be transferred entirely to the current situation. Because the data does not yet include the omicron wave that has been sweeping the world since autumn 2021. With Omicron, the infections are not only milder on average, they also seem to result in long covid less often, the researchers write.

The question also remains open to what extent the corona vaccinations influence the risk of long covid after a breakthrough infection. Because information on the vaccination status was not included in the studies. The fact that the vaccinations have an influence remains undisputed: those who become infected are more likely to become slightly ill – and this also reduces their personal long-Covid risk.

What can be done to help people with Long Covid?

Right now, the options are fairly limited, because the disorder is so little understood. Some countries have opened clinics for people with Long Covid. In Germany, a company called MEDIAN has begun accepting people with Long Covid at some of its private rehabilitation clinics. In England, the National Health Service has provided £10 million for a network of 69 clinics: these have started to assess and help people with the condition. While in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a free online Covid rehabilitation programme was launched to help patients recover and manage long-term effects.

The UAE also witnessed that long-term sufferers of Covid-19 are increasingly turning to holistic and natural remedies to ease chronic symptoms of fatigue. Alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, alternative therapies such as mediation and mental exercises are proving to speed-up recovery. The Dubai Health Authority (DHA) does not include any form of treatment by alternative medicine in the EBP plans. Alternative & Complementary benefits are available with all HanseMerkur health insurance plans – Please contact your local sales agent for more information.