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Over a million people in the UK estimated to have long COVID

9th April 2021

The persistence of symptoms following an acute infection with COVID-19 is widely recognised, with one estimate indicating that a huge number of people are affected.

The continuation of symptoms after infection with COVID-19 (colloquially termed ‘long COVID’) has been seen in many patients. Rather than a single entity, long COVID includes a number of symptoms including fatigue, headache and upper respiratory complaints such as shortness of breath and sore throat and in the UK, NICE has already issued guidance on the management of the long-term effects of infection. As a part of the ongoing COVID-19 infection, survey, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has, since February 2021, asked respondents if they would “describe yourself as having ‘long COVID”, that is, you are still experiencing symptoms more than 4 weeks after you first had COVID-19, that are not explained by something else?”. In cases where someone answers yes, they are then asked “Does this reduce your ability to carry-out day-to-day activities compared with the time before you had COVID-19?”. Possible answers include “yes, a lot”, “yes, a little” and “not at all”. A limitation of this method of data collection however, is that the responses are self-reported rather than being clinically diagnosed as symptomatic post-COVID syndrome.

According to the ONS data, over the 4-week period ending on 6 March 2021, an estimated 1.1 million people in private households in the UK were experiencing long COVID. Interestingly, among those with long COVID, 697,000 were infected at least 12 weeks earlier, 473,000 6 months earlier and 70,000 more than a year ago. Among those with self-reported long COVID, the majority (91.2%) reported experiencing at least one symptom at the time of their infection with the most commonly reported symptoms lasting for at least 12 weeks being fatigue (8.3%), headache (7.2%) and cough (7%). In addition, approximately half (50.6%) of those with long COVID had more mild and were not hospitalised.

In terms of the impact, 61.6% of those with long COVID reported that it causes some limitation in day-to-day activities and 17.9% stated that their day-to-day activities had been limited a lot. The highest prevalence of long COVID after 12 weeks was among those aged 25 to 34 (18.2%) and lowest in the 2 to 11 years age band (7.4%).

Office for National Statistics. Prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the UK: 1 April 2021