Background: Patients often report various symptoms after recovery from acute COVID-19. Previous studies on post-COVID-19 condition have not corrected for the prevalence and severity of these common symptoms before COVID-19 and in populations without SARS-CoV-2 infection. We aimed to analyse the nature, prevalence, and severity of long-term symptoms related to COVID-19, while correcting for symptoms present before SARS-CoV-2 infection and controlling for the symptom dynamics in the population without infection.
Methods: This study is based on data collected within Lifelines, a multidisciplinary, prospective, population-based, observational cohort study examining the health and health-related behaviours of people living in the north of the Netherlands. All Lifelines participants aged 18 years or older received invitations to digital COVID-19 questionnaires. Longitudinal dynamics of 23 somatic symptoms surrounding COVID-19 diagnoses (due to SARS-CoV-2 alpha [B.1.1.7] variant or previous variants) were assessed using 24 repeated measurements between March 31, 2020, and Aug 2, 2021. Participants with COVID-19 (a positive SARS-CoV-2 test or a physician's diagnosis of COVID-19) were matched by age, sex, and time to COVID-19-negative controls. We recorded symptom severity before and after COVID-19 in participants with COVID-19 and compared that with matched controls.
Findings: 76 422 participants (mean age 53·7 years [SD 12·9], 46 329 [60·8%] were female) completed a total of 883 973 questionnaires. Of these, 4231 (5·5%) participants had COVID-19 and were matched to 8462 controls. Persistent symptoms in COVID-19-positive participants at 90-150 days after COVID-19 compared with before COVID-19 and compared with matched controls included chest pain, difficulties with breathing, pain when breathing, painful muscles, ageusia or anosmia, tingling extremities, lump in throat, feeling hot and cold alternately, heavy arms or legs, and general tiredness. In 12·7% of patients, these symptoms could be attributed to COVID-19, as 381 (21·4%) of 1782 COVID-19-positive participants versus 361 (8·7%) of 4130 COVID-19-negative controls had at least one of these core symptoms substantially increased to at least moderate severity at 90-150 days after COVID-19 diagnosis or matched timepoint.
Interpretation: To our knowledge, this is the first study to report the nature and prevalence of post-COVID-19 condition, while correcting for individual symptoms present before COVID-19 and the symptom dynamics in the population without SARS-CoV-2 infection during the pandemic. Further research that distinguishes potential mechanisms driving post-COVID-19-related symptomatology is required.
Funding: ZonMw; Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport; Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs; University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen; Provinces of Drenthe, Friesland, and Groningen.
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