Last month, the Guardian published an interview with Paul Garner, a professor of infectious diseases, about his experience of Covid-19. The piece was shared widely and viewed nearly 1m times. Readers got in touch to say they too were suffering from lingering and often strange Covid-19 symptoms.
There is evidence that the official NHS description of the virus’s symptoms – cough, fever, loss of taste/smell – is too narrow. Those who do not need acute hospital treatment and who are isolating at home report a far broader range of problems. Often these go on for longer than 14 days. An online survey of 151 medical professionals who fell ill in March found 68 are still unable to work. A further 26 went back, only to stop again when symptoms returned.
It appears coronavirus may be a chronic condition. How long it persists for is unknown. The symptoms can be serious and wide-ranging, affecting the lungs, heart, brain, kidneys, stomach and nervous system. Headaches, shortness of breath, sore throat and feeling exhausted are common. So is recovery followed by frequent relapses. Here are the stories of four women who are struggling to return to normal life.
Iulia Hammond, 39, junior doctor in Manchester
“I went down with Covid on 19 March. I had a fever, chills and a very mild dry cough. I took to bed, feeling like I couldn’t do much of anything. After three or four days I had really severe respiratory symptoms. It felt as if there were shards of glass in my lungs. It was the most horrendous thing I have ever experienced. I was absolutely terrified.
“For the past 10 weeks I have been sleeping sitting upright in bed. It’s the only way I’m able to breathe. I developed pharyngitis and at one point I thought they were going to have to intubate me. I made two trips to A&E and had tests. I chatted to my GP who says patients look OK and yet feel the worst they have ever felt. It’s such a horrible virus. It seems quite different in each person. There’s not a standard progression.
“I’ve had a slew of symptoms. I got the worst headache I have ever had, like an electric cord over my temples and the back of my head. I get an odd crawling sensation on the left side of the face, including when I brush my hair. I’ve had abdominal issues and stomach pain and sensory things like pins and needles in my arms and legs. The illness comes around in two-week cycles. This has happened four times.
“Every day I am still short of breath. In week six I got a left-sided stabbing chest pain. I now have an abnormal heart rate. This is something you can get with viruses and I’m hoping it will go. You wonder why is this happening? As a physician I have been reading articles. We are learning about coronavirus in real time. The virus is completely novel, akin to HIV/Aids in the 1980s.
“I’m now on day 74 and not at work. Essentially I go bed, kitchen, sofa. There are weeks when I feel I have ridden the wave, and others where I’m back in the wave. I would like to get back to normal life sooner rather than later. It feels very endless.”
Dr Tracy Briggs, 42, clinical academic and geneticist at the University of Manchester
“I got symptoms on 13 March. We had been in London on holiday for half-term and rode the tube and went to museums. I felt short of breath. My chest was tight and my heart was racing. I have very mild asthma and I thought maybe it was an attack. It was strange. The inhaler didn’t work and after a few hours I went to A&E. I was told to go home and isolate.
“I wasn’t able to get out of bed or eat. I felt absolutely rough, sweaty, with a horrible sore throat and struggling to breathe. After 10 days I started to do a little bit more. I went for a walk with the family and pottered around the house. Then I seemed to step back and struggle again. Climbing one flight of stairs would send my heart racing. I would cough and be short of breath.
“It has been such a rollercoaster. You start to question yourself and your own sanity. You wonder what tomorrow is going to be. It’s quite tough. My 12-year-old son had no appetite for three weeks, a sore throat and vomiting. My husband had a sore throat for a week and a mild chicken pox-like rash. My stepson had Covid symptoms and was coughing, but not as badly as me.”
“My tongue and the back of the throat are red, white and inflamed. I’ve lost quite a lot of weight. I find myself choking on food and short of breath when I eat. I’ve been taking Gaviscon and today started on a course of proton pump inhibitors. I’ve had a feeling of burning in my sternum and my throat.
“I felt hot and sweaty but didn’t have a documented high temperature. I think there is a need to recognise that the clinical symptoms are much wider than cough and fever. This isn’t necessarily something which lasts seven or 14 days. Absolutely acute patients are the priority. But we need to be aware that for a number of people, even those who don’t need to go to hospital, it’s going on for a long period. We need support.”
Jo Platt, 46, former Labour MP for Leigh
“I lost my seat in the December election. I wasn’t going to work or down to London. The only thing I can think of is I picked up the virus while shopping. The first symptoms began on 24 March. It was like flicking a light switch. I was at my computer and felt I was going to faint. I had nausea, dizziness and a burning temperature. Then the fatigue set in. I couldn’t move and went to bed for two days.
“I recovered and thought I had something really mild. For two more days I was shaky. The next day I really went down with it. I had shortness of breath, an unproductive cough. It felt like something was in my chest. I had a horrific headache. I could not get out of bed for a full week. By the Easter weekend I thought I was out of it. But that Monday the symptoms returned. I called my GP. They were very nice, but said you haven’t got the usual symptoms and should rest.
“The gastro thing is really worrying me. I lost a stone in weight and could not eat. My blood tests were normal apart from a vitamin D deficiency. I couldn’t get a test. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. The government says if you haven’t got a cough or temperature or loss of taste it’s not Covid. That’s not true. My GP now says they’ve had numerous cases similar to mine.
“This is week 10. I get back pain, like an inflammation. It’s not as severe as it’s been. I have a really strange sensation in my legs, as if I’ve been hill walking. I wake up with sore joints in my fingers. I’ve had gastrointestinal issues and acid reflux. Seeing food on TV makes me feel nauseous. This is manageable. For me the scary thing is the shortness of breath. We still don’t know how long this goes on for and that’s the frightening bit.
“We need a bottom-up approach. There are a lot of voices out there and we are not being listened to. More and more people are joining [‘long haul’ covid] Facebook support groups. We have got a lot to say and want to get the message out to GPs and public health directors.”
Ginevra Read, 42, psychiatrist, Bristol
“It started on 16 March. I had a slight cough and a terrible headache. The next morning my temperature was 38.3C. A week later, I was feeling worse and developed shortness of breath but it passed after a day or so. After another week I felt completely well. I went out for a short jog and felt fine. Normally I run 25km a week, swim and do yoga. But then later that week, after another short run, I was hit by extreme fatigue lasting four days. This happened another three to four times, after much less exertion.
“Around week seven there was a big deterioration. It was my son’s birthday and I was busy, making him a cake, and we went on a short family bike ride too. A few days later, it all came back but much worse. I had lots of symptoms, including tingling on the right side of my body, and a sensation of heat on my left foot, as well as shortness of breath, chest pain and fevers. People talk about internal shaking. I had that and a feeling like my stomach was vibrating, deeply unpleasant and as if I was being poisoned.
“It was very frightening to feel so unwell. Going into week nine I was exhausted. Staying in bed really helped with fatigue but in week 11, I still have low grade fevers, chills, malaise and odd neurological symptoms. I am resting a lot but my improvements have plateaued.
“We don’t know what is causing prolonged Covid. Is it the ongoing initial illness, or is it an inflammatory reaction or is it a post-viral syndrome? We don’t know what the prognosis is or what the long-term consequences are. I wonder how many people are having prolonged illness and what the impact is on the workforce, for example. It’s scary to have an illness for which there isn’t any treatment and that doesn’t seem to be going away.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010