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Characterising post-COVID syndrome more than 6 months after acute infection in adults; prospective longitudinal cohort study, England

By Zahin Amin-Chowdhury, Ross J Harris, Felicity Aiano, Maria Zavala, Marta Bertran, Ray Borrow, Ezra Linley, Shazaad Ahmad, Ben Parker, Alex R Horsley, Bassam Hallis, Jessica Flood, Kevin Brown, Gayatri Amirthalingam, Mary E Ramsay, Nick Andrews, Shamez Ladhani

Posted 24 Mar 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.03.18.21253633

Background Most individuals with COVID-19 will recover without sequelae, but some will develop long-term multi-system impairments. The definition, duration, prevalence and symptoms associated with long COVID, however, have not been established. Methods Public Health England (PHE) initiated longitudinal surveillance of clinical and non-clinical healthcare workers for monthly assessment and blood sampling for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in March 2020. Eight months after enrolment, participants completed an online questionnaire including 72 symptoms in the preceding month. Symptomatic mild-to-moderate cases with confirmed COVID-19 were compared with asymptomatic, seronegative controls. Multivariable logistic regression was used to identify independent symptoms associated with long COVID. Findings All 2,147 participants were contacted and 1,671 (77.8%) completed the questionnaire, including 140 (8.4%) cases and 1,160 controls. At a median of 7.5 (IQR 7.1-7.8) months after infection, 20 cases (14.3%) had ongoing (4/140, 2.9%) or episodic (16/140, 11.4%) symptoms. We identified three clusters of symptoms associated with long COVID, those affecting the sensory (ageusia, anosmia, loss of appetite and blurred vision), neurological (forgetfulness, short-term memory loss and confusion/brain fog) and cardiorespiratory (chest tightness/pain, unusual fatigue, breathlessness after minimal exertion/at rest, palpitations) systems. The sensory cluster had the highest association with being a case (aOR 5.25, 95% CI 3.45-8.01). Dermatological, gynaecological, gastrointestinal or mental health symptoms were not significantly different between cases and controls. Interpretation Most persistent symptoms reported following mild COVID-19 were equally common in cases and controls. While all three clusters identified had a strong association with cases, the sensory cluster had the highest specificity and strength of association, and therefore, most likely to be characteristic of long COVID.

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