More than two million adults in England may have had long Covid, a study has suggested.
The REACT-2 study, which involved collecting data from random samples of the population between September 2020 and February 2021, found that one in 20 people (around 6%) reported experiencing at least one of 29 symptoms of Covid-19 for 12 weeks or more.
Almost one in five study participants reported they had had Covid-19, either suspected or confirmed by a PCR test.
The researchers estimated that more than two million people in England may have also experienced persistent symptoms of Covid-19, if the study’s findings are representative of the population.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, said: “Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of Covid-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning.
“Long Covid is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.”
The study found that those who were at higher risk of long Covid included women, people who smoked, people who were overweight or obese, people who lived in deprived areas and those who had been admitted to hospital.
Age was also linked with having persistent Covid-19 symptoms, with the risk rising by 3.5% with each decade of life.
People of Asian ethnicity were the least likely to report suffering symptoms of long Covid.
The proportion of people with symptoms of Covid-19 rapidly declined within the first four weeks of infection, followed by a small drop by 12 weeks. However, those still experiencing symptoms after 12 weeks reported little change in how they felt after five months.
People with symptoms after 12 weeks fell into one of two groups: those with respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath, chest tightness and chest pain; and those who experienced persistent tiredness, often with muscle aches and difficulty sleeping.
The REACT-2 study is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and involves inviting 2,000 people from random samples of the population to participate every two to four months. Participants complete a questionnaire and a finger-prick test which looks for Covid-19 antibodies.
This tranche of research looked at rounds 3-5 of the REACT programme, carried out between September and February. Some 508,707 adults aged 18 and above were included in the sample.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know long Covid can have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected. Studies like this help us to rapidly build our understanding of the impact of the condition and we are using these findings and other new research to develop support and treatments.
“We are learning more about long Covid all the time and have made £50 million research funding available to support innovative projects, with clinics established across the country to help improve the treatment available.”