How long does COVID-19 last?

June 8, 2020

How long does COVID-19 last? Our data shows one in ten are sick for three weeks or more.

It’s commonly believed that COVID-19 is a short-term illness caused by infection with the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and most health sources suggest that people will recover within two weeks or so.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t the case for everyone infected with coronavirus. Some people have reported symptoms for three weeks or more, while others have been suffering for months

We look at what the data from the COVID Symptom Study app is telling us about the number of people living with COVID-19 over the longer term, the symptoms they are experiencing, and whether they are still infectious. 

How long does COVID-19 last?

Data from our COVID Symptom Study suggests that while most people recover from COVID-19 within two weeks, one in ten people may still have symptoms after three weeks, and some may suffer for months. 

Our research shows that some people are experiencing fatigue, headaches, coughs, anosmia (loss of smell), sore throats, delirium, and chest pain for more than three weeks after first reporting symptoms in the app.

Data from the COVID Symptom Study suggests that one in ten people still have COVID-19 symptoms after three weeks

In people who develop severe cases of COVID-19, we know that symptoms follow a typical pattern: anosmia, fever and cough in the first two days, which develop into severe respiratory symptoms often requiring hospitalisation after around a week.

But strangely, it seems that people with mild cases of the disease are more likely to have a variety of strange symptoms that come and go over a more extended period.  The more we learn about coronavirus, the weirder it gets, says COVID Symptom Study lead Professor Tim Spector from King’s College London.

"I've studied 100 diseases. COVID is the strangest one I have seen in my medical career," he told the Guardian recently.

What symptoms do people with long-term COVID experience?

A few months ago, we thought that COVID-19 was just a respiratory disease characterised by a cough and high temperature. 

But now we know that the virus can cause a vast range of symptoms, from cardiovascular problems to gastrointestinal distress.  Many long-term COVID sufferers report a variety of these 'atypical' symptoms coming and going over time. 

We spoke with Dr Rachel Pope, Senior Lecturer in European Prehistory at the University of Liverpool, who has been suffering from symptoms for 13 weeks. 

“It started like a cold or flu,” she says.  "By week four, most of the people around me who also had it, including my daughter and my former partner, got better.". 

But although Rachel had improved during her fourth week, she got worse again in week 5 and her symptoms moved from her airways into her internal organs, resulting in heart problems that took her to A&E.

“The first time they thought I was having a stroke, and the second time they thought it was a heart attack,” she says.

Rachel isn’t alone. A growing number of people are reporting long-term symptoms of COVID-19. Some have reported heart problems, which doctors have put down to post-viral inflammation caused by COVID-19 rather than an ongoing infection. 

Experts have recently warned that COVID-19 may cause lasting damage to other internal organs, including the lungs, liver, brain, and kidney. This may explain why some people continue to experience symptoms long after the virus has been cleared from the body.

Are COVID-19 'long-termers' still infectious?

The short answer to this is we don’t know when people with COVID-19 stop being infectious. One Chinese study reported details of a patient who was shedding coronavirus for 49 days, despite only experiencing mild symptoms, so people could remain infectious for a long time.  

Whether or not an individual is still infectious several weeks after first catching coronavirus depends on whether their symptoms are the result of an ongoing infection or damage that persists after their immune system has cleared the virus.

Rachel admits that she doesn’t know if she is still infectious. 

“I personally think that there was still a viral tail up to week 11. I was still having quite violent diarrhoea at that point, so I think it was still viral.”

The NHS advises continuing to self-isolate if you have a temperature, runny nose, sickness, diarrhoea or loss of appetite, even if it has been more than 14 days since your symptoms started,  as you may still have an active viral infection.

People with long-term COVID-19 are struggling to get back to normal life

“These people may be going back to work and not performing at the top of their game,” Prof Tim Spector told the Guardian. “There is a whole other side to the virus which has not had attention because of the idea that ‘if you are not dead you are fine.’”

People feeling long-lasting effects of COVID-19 are angry at the lack of information and support available.

“It’s great that we haven’t died, but I’ve now been suffering with serious health problems for three months with very limited support,” says Rachel. 

The COVID Symptom Study app aims to help people like Rachel by understanding the long term health effects of the coronavirus pandemic. If you can relate to Rachel's experience, and could benefit from peer support, you can also check out this Facebook group .

We need as many people as possible to be using the app on a daily basis to log their health, even if you feel well or think you’ve already had COVID-19. 

You can also set up user profiles for friends or family - including children - who aren’t able to use the app but still want to take part in this vital research project. 

The lowdown on long-term COVID-19

  • Most people recover from mild COVID-19 within two weeks and more serious disease within three weeks
  • Some people suffer from the effects of the virus for much longer
  • The virus may cause damage to internal organs, resulting in long-term or potentially permanent health problems
  • There currently is little information and support available for people with long-term COVID-19
  • We need to gather ongoing data about the nation’s health to understand the long-term effects of this disease

To learn more and download the app so you can contribute to our research, visit covid.joinzoe.com/

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