Thousands of people are struggling in silence with crippling symptoms of long Covid, months after they have recovered from the virus, it emerged yesterday.
Respiratory consultant Professor Seamus Linnane, who set up the country’s first dedicated clinic for long Covid in Dublin’s Beacon Hospital, said: “I am dealing with a lot of people who are distressed and dismayed by what they are going through.”
Long Covid can leave a legacy of symptoms ranging from fatigue, breathlessness, chest pain, palpitations, lack of sleep, anxiety and depression for months after recovery.
It comes amid fears the current wave of Covid-19, triggered by the Delta variant, will leave many young unvaccinated people battling the aftermath of infection even though they have not been hospitalised.
Separately, preliminary research, led by Dublin cardiologist Professor Robert Byrne, found 60pc to 80pc of 63 post-Covid patients had at least one lingering symptom weeks afterwards.
Prof Byrne, who is chair of cardiovascular research at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said a significant proportion of the post-Covid patients, who volunteered for research after being seen by a specialist or GP, had symptoms such as fatigue, chest pain, breathlessness and palpitations.
“In our Setanta study only a small number were hospitalised. Most people had mild Covid-19 but have symptoms down the line.”
Prof Byrne, of Dublin’s Mater Private hospital, said of those who had been screened there had been no evidence of underlying damage but more patients who would be recruited would be studied as part of the research. Meanwhile, there will be a one-year follow-up of all involved.
HSE chief Paul Reid yesterday warned the spread of the Delta variant, which fuelled 1,173 new cases of the virus yesterday, would lead to a rise in long Covid in unvaccinated people.
“Long Covid can significantly impact, particularly younger people,” he warned.
However, the HSE still has no specific funding for long Covid services and does not have an estimate of how widespread the condition is.
A spokeswoman said it was “extremely difficult to determine the scale as yet in Ireland”.
Prof Linnane said: “A lot of people coming to us were never in hospital and managed the infection at home. But three to six months on they are still struggling with symptoms. A large number of people who got Covid-19 did not end up in hospital. The worry is for a percentage of a large number of people.”
He said that to date in his clinic, 89pc had fatigue, 72pc had breathlessness, 62pc had sleep disturbance, 51pc had chest pain and 55pc had anxiety and depression-type symptoms.
“It is variable how many symptoms an individual patient has.”
He said there was only a year-and-a-half worth of experience of Covid-19 to draw on.
“We are seeing the number of people recovering from long Covid steadily increasing as time goes by. At three months, a certain number are still struggling. There are fewer in six months and fewer in a year.
“We are still seeing people referred with initial infection in the first Covid-19 wave still struggling with symptoms.
“It can go on for many months and we have seen people beyond a year. But what we are saying, as time goes by, is that the number of people reduced the further away from infection they are.”
He added that “a lot of people are of young working age. It is having an enormous impact in terms of their occupational status and ability to continue with their work.
“There are a lot of people with post-Covid trying to manage their work commitments, being unable to attend work due to sickness and attempting to negotiate and navigate all that.
“While age and increasing age is a risk factor for post- Covid syndrome the people we are meeting are generally of working age and pre-retirement. There are more women than men. Those aged 25 to 55 to 60 years make up the majority.”
The symptoms, which can vary from person to person, can lead to an “awful lot of illness and suffering”.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and it can include medication, muscle building or psychological support depending on the individual.
“We need to raise awareness and let people know there are others who are also suffering like them.”
Prof Byrne said his research had still be finalised and there might be a selection bias with those who have had no post-Covid symptoms less likely to volunteer. But they have tried to minimise this effect by contacting GPs to invite patients who have had the virus.
“They are invited for a detailed cardiac exam, including an MRI scan. The preliminary information suggests thankfully no lasting cardiac damage.”
He added: “When we look at these patients we are not seeing evidence of serious heart muscle scarring.
“Long Covid is a significant problem and being young
does not seem to protect you from it.”
The study has found the most frequent symptoms are breathlessness, chest pain, palpitations, dizziness or light-headedness. The final results of the study, which will include a larger number of patients, are due to be released in the autumn.
Ciara Dolan, a clinical specialist physiotherapist with the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists, advised yesterday that: “Caution is required when recommending any form of activity in those with long Covid.
“For those who are experiencing long Covid it is currently unknown when and by what amount physical activity – including exercise or sport – is safe or beneficial. Exertion should not be pushed to the point of fatigue or symptom exacerbation both during and in the days following exertion.
“Physiotherapists can play an important role in the rehabilitation of people living with long Covid, to balance activities with rest to optimise recovery.
“If you have or suspect you have long Covid you should seek a medical review and support from a physiotherapist with training in treating the condition.”
The HSE said guidance was being developed “to align needs with care provision and to develop criteria and strategies for the ongoing evaluation of patients”.
A spokeswoman said “there is a range of supports available in general practice and in the hospital setting, and we are working on further developing those supports”.
“Treatment is focused on management of specific symptoms,” she added.
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