Becoming ill with COVID-19 is not a rare phenomenon. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, the pandemic is responsible for more than 750 million confirmed cases and almost seven million deaths. Yet, there is more than infection and death in the wake of the virus. Almost 200 million people across the world report suffering from “Long COVID,” an amorphous condition in which symptoms from COVID-19 infection last long past the initial sickness. Long COVID encompasses a wide range of ailments and can last anywhere from days to years.
The slideshow below chronicles the discovery of Long COVID and what we have discovered about this illness since.
What We Know About Long COVID: A Timeline
“Long COVID” is Coined
On May 20, 2020, Elisa Perego, an archaeologist at the University College London first coined the term “Long COVID” through a hashtag on Twitter, referring to her own experience with long-term symptoms of COVID-19 and novel research from Italy showing other instances of long-lasting effects of COVID-19. The term was quickly adopted by others suffering from long-lasting effects of COVID-19 and became a mainstream expression for enduring symptoms of the disease.
A researcher works inside a laboratory during the development of the Italian ReiThera COVID-19 vaccine, in Rome, Italy.
A “Post-COVID-19 Condition”
In October 2021, following examination of available research and a novel study into the specific domains and variables for diagnostic inclusion, the World Health Organization (WHO) created “post COVID-19 condition” as the globally standardized clinical case definition for Long COVID. The diagnosis includes twelve domains of the illness that distinguish it from standard acute COVID-19 infection and is now included in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Disease).
Lauren Nichols, who has long COVID, takes a break from work to read her blood oxygen levels and heart rate from a machine on her finger in her home in Andover, Massachusetts, on August 3, 2022.
Long COVID in Children
In January 2022, data from a cohort study conducted in Denmark was published, showing that less than 1 percent of children testing positive for COVID-19 reported symptoms lasting longer than four weeks. The most reported symptoms were fatigue and loss of smell in pre-school children, and loss of smell and taste in school children.
Noa, a ten-year-old Israeli girl suffering from Long COVID, chats with her mother in a post-COVID-19 clinic, in Schneider Children’s Medical Center, in Petah Tikva, Israel, on December 6, 2021.
Vaccines and Long COVID Risk
According to a study published in December 2022, it was shown that receiving at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or Janssen vaccine reduced the chance of developing Long COVID by 35.3 percent for those who acquired COVID-19 after vaccination. Among those who had already had COVID-19, post-acquisition vaccination reduced the chance of developing Long COVID by 27.4 percent.
A woman receives a booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, ahead of brace of an influx of Chinese tourists as COVID restrictions are dismantled, in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 5, 2023.
Predictive Factors of Long COVID
In March 2023, a systematic review was published demonstrating that a number of demographic characteristics, including older age, female sex, smoking status, and high BMI, were significant predictors of Long COVID/Post-COVID-19 condition. The review also found that comorbidities, including ischemic heart disease, immunosuppression, COPD, and hospitalization during acute phase of disease, were significant predictors of Long COVID.
Rachel Gershom and other senior citizens dance at a vaccination party before they receive a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after Israel approved a second booster shot for the immunocompromised, people over sixty years, and medical staff, in a retirement home, in Netanya, Israel, on January 5, 2022.
No Effective Treatments
To date, there are no validated treatments for Long COVID. Much is still unknown about the causes of Long COVID, and the vastly different presentation of symptoms across patients make it difficult to study. There are, however, many leads on potential treatments—such as using anticoagulants, immune regulators, and antivirals such as Paxlovid, a commonly used drug for treating COVID-19 in people at risk for severe disease. As research develops, so will the prospects for those living with Long COVID and their loved ones.
Julie Fallon, who describes her long COVID symptoms as “extreme cognitive challenges,” has her medications gathered on her kitchen counter at her home in Colrain, Massachusetts, on June 15, 2022.