Data published in March 2022 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show an alarming rise in the number of people who have self-reported long COVID, meaning they are still experiencing symptoms more than four weeks after their initial COVID-19 infection that are not explained by something else.
The number of people estimated to be living with long COVID increased by 196,000 during January 2022, compared with an increase of 66,000 the previous month, and it is likely that the full impact of the highly transmissible Omicron variant is yet to be seen in the data.
According to the ONS, there were 1.5 million people in private households in the UK estimated to have long COVID of any duration as of 31 January 2022, up from 1.3 million people the previous month. Just over 1 million of these first had COVID-19 more than 12 weeks previously. This estimate does not include those living in communal housing, such as university halls of residence, prisons, boarding schools, hospitals or care homes. The data are based on 382,591 responses to the Coronavirus Infection Survey, weighted to represent people in the UK.
Who is suffering?
The ONS data suggest that prevalence of long COVID symptoms of any duration is highest in white women aged 35–49 years, who have an activity-limiting healthcare condition, live in a deprived area in the north east of England and work within teaching and education or social care.
Wide variety of symptoms
Fatigue continues to be the most common symptom reported by those experiencing long COVID, followed by shortness of breath, loss of smell and loss of taste.
Impact of vaccination
A rapid evidence review published by the UK Health Security Agency on 15 February 2022 concluded that vaccinated people are less likely to develop long COVID than those who are unvaccinated.
Results from one study suggest that fully vaccinated people are about half as likely to have symptoms lasting four or more weeks than unvaccinated people after adjusting for age, body mass index and sex; this is in addition to the protection vaccines offer against infection with COVID-19.
The review also found evidence that, in people with long COVID, more people reported an improvement than a worsening in symptoms after vaccination, although in three out of five studies reporting on symptom changes following vaccination, up to 70% of people reported that their symptoms were unchanged.
Sources: Office for National Statistics. Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK : 3 March 2022; UK Health Security Agency. The effectiveness of vaccination against long COVID: a rapid evidence briefing; Lancet Infect Dis 2022;22(1):43–55.
Artwork by: Wayne McLean and MAG