Though emergency pandemic restrictions have been mostly lifted by now, COVID is still circulating throughout the populace. For victims of long COVID, the effects of the pandemic are far from over.
One of the major challenges around long COVID is that it’s not a condition with clear definition. It’s an amalgamation of symptoms that linger well after an infection has been purged. You might not experience all the symptoms either—for reasons that are unclear. Without having a clear definition of what long COVID is, physicians can’t really make much progress in figuring out how to treat it and help people to recover.
A new study in JAMA published Thursday aims to change all that by outlining 12 symptoms that define long COVID.
“Now that we’re able to identify people with long COVID, we can begin doing more in-depth studies to understand the biological mechanisms at play,” co-author Andrea Foulkes, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and biostatistician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press release. “One of the big takeaways from this study is the heterogeneity of long COVID: long COVID is not just one syndrome; it’s a syndrome of syndromes.”
The new paper comes out of the National Institute of Health’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER-Adult) investigation, a $1.15 billion endeavor to understand long COVID and make it easier for physicians and clinicians to diagnose and eventually treat the condition.
The new paper reiterates the scientific term for long COVID: post-acute sequelae, or PASC. The 12 symptoms the authors of the study identified as a result of PASC are:
- loss of smell/taste
- feelings of malaise after physical activity
- chronic cough
- “brain fog” that makes mental activity difficult
- heart palpitations
- chest pains
- changes in sexual desire
- gastrointestinal ailments
- abnormal movements
- hair loss
The RECOVER team developed this new definition after examining nearly 10,000 participants across 85 hospitals in the U.S. More than 8.600 were survivors of COVID infection, while 1,1000 did not come down with the virus.
Some symptoms were vastly more common than others. Loss of smell and taste stood out as occurred the most, followed by malaise. Chronic cough, brain fog, and thirst were moderately common. Many others like dizziness and hair loss, however, scored much lower.
The authors hope the new definition makes it easier for doctors to diagnose long COVID and begin helping patients to figure out how to more specifically manage their symptoms. They also hope that as reinfections tick upward, the new definition helps researchers identify to what extent multiple bouts of COVID and vaccination status affects the likelihood of developing long COVID.
“Understanding this idea is a really important step for doing more research and ultimately administering informed interventions,” said Foulkes.