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Long COVID and the connection with chronic fatigue syndrome

There is a significant overlap between ‘Long COVID’ symptoms and chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers reveal.

A hospital worker plays guitar for a Covid patient in Brazil. — © Tarso Sarraf / AFP/File - Getty Images
A hospital worker plays guitar for a Covid patient in Brazil. — © Tarso Sarraf / AFP/File - Getty Images

One of the medical concerns following a infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a subsequent COVID-19 infection is the development of ‘Long COVID’. Common symptoms of long COVID include breathlessness, headaches, cough, fatigue, and cognitive impairment or ‘brain fog’.

There is a significant overlap between ‘Long COVID’ symptoms and the established condition of ME/CFS (or myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome).

The pathway to recovery or diagnosis for people with long COVID will not be uniform. Some will recover, some will have organ damage and a subset are expected to develop chronic illnesses like ME/CFS, autonomic disorders and autoimmune conditions. 

READ MORE: Biomarkers for coronavirus help to identify at risk COVID-19 patients

What is myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome?

ME/CFS is a complex, chronic disease that affects multiple systems in the body. The main symptom of ME/CFS is feeling extremely tired and generally unwell.

In addition, people with ME/CFS may have other symptoms, including:

  • sleep problems
  • muscle or joint pain
  • headaches
  • a sore throat or sore glands that are not swollen
  • problems thinking, remembering, or concentrating
  • flu-like symptoms
  • feeling dizzy or sick
  • fast or irregular heartbeats (heart palpitations)

While many different groups are impacted, many long haulers are reporting symptoms that resemble ME/CFS, most notably post-exertional malaise, a worsening of symptoms after exertion.

The majority of people infected with the coronavirus fall into one of two groups The majority end up having a mild reaction and most of those cases resolve in about two weeks. Others experience a severe response to the virus, taking three and six weeks to recover.

There is also a smaller group of people who experience prolonged symptoms one, two or even three months after they were infected. These are commonly referred to as ‘long haulers’.

The COVID-19 connection

Based on evidence from past viral outbreaks, researchers expect that at least 10-12 percent of COVID-19 patients will go on to develop ME/CFS following COVID-19.  This tallies with the fact that eighty percent of cases follow an infection. Studies​ ​show that viral outbreaks often lead to post-viral illnesses, like ME. In fact, the virus  causing COVID-19, is not the first coronavirus to result in documented ME/CFS.

This is invariably highly debilitating, leaving 75 percent unable to work and 25 percent home or bed bound. 

To assist long haulers with the condition, the campaign body Me Action has issued guidance. This includes how to address post-exertional malaise together with pacing exercises. ME Action is an international advocacy organization for myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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