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Who's Most at Risk of Long COVID? New Study Finds Possible Key Factors

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study analyzed data from numerous studies and health records to identify potential risk factors for prolonged COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Factors such as increasing age, being female, poor pre-pandemic general and mental health, asthma, and obesity were associated with a higher risk of developing long COVID.
  • Existing research also shows that COVID-19 vaccination—whether it’s before or after getting infected—may help reduce the risk of long COVID.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults still have long COVID symptoms, according to a recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Long COVID symptoms vary from fatigue and brain fog to skin rashes and shortness of breath. But scientists are still unsure how people develop these symptoms and whether certain risk factors lead to the condition.

Researchers in the United Kingdom recently gathered data from 1.1 million anonymous electronic healthcare records and analyzed almost 7,000 individuals who had COVID-19.

Of the people who reported having had COVID-19, around 8–17% of them had symptoms for longer than 12 weeks. However, only 0.4% of the people in the health records had an official long COVID diagnosis.

Factors such as increasing age, being female, poor pre-pandemic general and mental health, asthma, and obesity were associated with a higher risk of developing long COVID.

Although this is an observational study that cannot conclude a causal relationship between these factors and long COVID, the findings help identify potential key risk factors.

“The main purpose of studies like this is to find out what questions to ask next," Claire Steves, PhD, study author and senior clinical lecturer at King’s College London, told Verywell. "These factors are like pointers, which guide the research community to investigate further.”

The new findings are generally consistent with previous studies. For example, older adults and people who have pre-existing conditions were more likely to have lasting symptoms, and women were found to be 22% more likely to experience long COVID than men.

A smaller study published in January found four other factors that may be linked to a higher likelihood of long COVID, including a high viral load during the course of infection, reactivated Epstein-Barr virus, having type 2 diabetes, and the presence of specific autoantibodies.

While the mechanism behind long COVID is still being researched, getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to avoid developing this condition, said Irfan Hafiz, MD, chief medical officer and infectious diseases specialist at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital.

Existing research also shows that COVID-19 vaccination—whether it’s before or after getting infected—may help reduce the risk of long COVID.

“If you are in the high-risk groups for complications, including long COVID, make sure you are vaccinated and boosted as per the recommendations,” Hafiz said.

What This Means For You

If you have prolonged symptoms after COVID-19, seek medical attention from your healthcare provider immediately. They can rule out other treatable causes of your symptoms and refer you to other necessary services, Steves said. Nonprofit groups such as Survivor Corps are also connecting long COVID patients to care centers and resources.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long COVID household pulse survey.

  2. Thompson EJ, Williams DM, Walker AJ, et al. Long COVID burden and risk factors in 10 UK longitudinal studies and electronic health records. Nat Commun. 2022;13:3528. doi:10.1038/s41467-022-30836-0

  3. Sudre CH, Murray B, Varsavsky T, et al. Attributes and predictors of long COVIDNat Med. 2021;27(4):626-631. doi:10.1038/s41591-021-01292-y

  4. Sylvester SV, Rusu R, Chan B, Bellows M, O’Keefe C, Nicholson S. Sex differences in sequelae from COVID-19 infection and in long COVID syndrome: a reviewCurr Med Res Opin. Published online June 20, 2022. doi:10.1080/03007995.2022.2081454

  5. Su Y, Yuan D, Chen DG, et al. Multiple early factors anticipate post-acute COVID-19 sequelae. Cell. 2022;185(5):881-895.e20. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2022.01.014