Is it possible to recover from Long Covid?
As with most questions about Long Covid, the answer is variable. Yes, no, maybe, depends. Just as the illness itself may really be multiple illnesses, so recovery may depend on what type of Long Covid you have.
Statistics vary as to how many people have Long Covid. Oxford University’s September 2021 estimate was 1 in 3 people. A Centre for Disease Control study in February suggested it was 1 in 10 people who developed symptoms more than one month after infection. People who had been hospitalized by COVID-19 were statistically more likely to experience persistent symptoms 10-14 weeks after infection. Various studies show hospitalised people fare worse in the long term and their recovery time is slower.
Looking at case studies from around the world, it seems that there are subsets of Long Covid patients who do recover. There are also a cohort who have ongoing symptoms, similar to people with ME/CFS.
When it comes to recovery, statistics vary. Many of the recovery studies involve people who had COVID-19 in the early stage of the pandemic before vaccines were available. Long-term studies on Long Covid in vaccinated people are not yet available.
Importantly, some of the more recent studies suggest that most people with Long Covid show recovery within a year.
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Looking at various recovery stories and statistics, it’s possible that Long Covid resolves itself eventually. Anecdotally, the most successful treatment is pacing and rest. But more research is needed.
Published Studies Of Recovery Rates
The PHOSP-COVID February 2021 study followed up on 1077 patients who had been hospitalized in the early, pre-vaccine stages of the pandemic. It found only 29% of them felt fully recovered 12 months after discharge.
In August 2022 PHOSP-COVID updated their findings, having included more patients in their study. 2320 hospitalized patients were studied with dates ranging from March 2020 to April 2021. The statistics were almost the same. 28·9% reported being fully recovered within a year. They found the proportion of patients reporting full recovery was unchanged between 5 months and 1 year, suggesting that for many, Long Covid set in and didn’t improve for months.
A June 2021 Australian study of 2904 pre-vaccine patients found that 80% recovered within a month, while 5% continued to experience symptoms 3 months later. In this study, 95% felt recovered. (Liu et al. 2021)
A July 2021 study looked at 431 pre-vaccine patients, 89% of whom had symptoms but only 19% were hospitalized. At 6 to 8 months, 26% reported not having fully recovered. This means 74% did feel recovered.
A July 2021 patient-led online survey looked at 3762 self-identified as Long Covid patients whose illness lasted longer than 28 days. It found: “For the majority of respondents (>91%), the time to recovery exceeded 35 weeks… The most frequent symptoms after month 6 were fatigue, post-exertional malaise, and cognitive dysfunction. Symptoms varied in their prevalence over time, and we identified three symptom clusters, each with a characteristic temporal profile. 85.9% of participants experienced relapses, primarily triggered by exercise, physical or mental activity, and stress.”
A January 2022 Korean study of pre-vaccine hospitalized patients found that 52.7% still experienced persistent symptoms after a year.
An April 2022 Chinese meta-analysis of pre-vaccine hospitalized patients found a variety of symptoms persisted from 6 months to a year. “Cough lasted for 6 months or longer in 20% of patients. Chest pain or tightness was reported in approximately 15.8% of patients over 1 year. Systemic symptoms such as fatigue persisted for 12 months among 10-60.8% of patients. Persistent taste and smell disorders have been reported at 6 months (7% and 11%, respectively). Hair loss was reported in > 20% of patients at 6 months while decreased to 11% at 1 year. Neurological disorders (e.g. sleep disorder, headache, dizziness) persisted with minor improvement for 1 year. Noticeably, 27% of patients suffered from sleep disorder at 6 months and 17% still had insomnia at 1 year… Anxiety and/or depression was reported in approximately 23% of patients at 6 months and 26% at 12 months.”
A May 2022 Chinese study of 2469 pre vaccine hospitalized patients looked at health outcomes 2 years later. It found 68% of patients reported at least one Long Covid symptom at 6 months after infection. This dropped to 55% after 2 years. Meaning 45% felt recovered after 2 years. The main symptom described was fatigue or muscle weakness. It found 89% had returned to work after 2 years.
A May 2022 preprint of a massive worldwide study of Long Covid looked at 1906 community infections and 10526 hospitalized patients from 2020 and 2021. The research found: “Globally, 144.7 million people experienced one or more of three symptom clusters (fatigue; cognitive problems; and ongoing respiratory problems) of long COVID three months after infection, in 2020 and 2021. Most cases arose from milder infections. At 12 months after infection, 15.1% of these cases had not yet recovered… Those with milder acute COVID-19 cases had a quicker estimated recovery (median duration 3.99 months) than those admitted for the acute infection (median duration 8.84 months).” This means that 84.1% did feel recovered after a year.
An August 2022 preprint study by McMaster University found that 75% of 106 COVID-19 patients had recovered after 12 months, while 25% still had at least once common symptom (fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath) after a year (Mukherjee et al, 2022).
An October 2022 study of over 33,000 Scottish Long Covid patients, most of whom had had symptomatic COVID infections, found that 1,856 (6%) had not recovered at all after 18 months and 13,350 (42%) had only partially recovered. So 58% were recovered at 18 months.
Follow up studies on recovery from individual symptoms
A July 2022 Italian study of hospitalised Long Covid patients found 63.2% had cognitive deficits after five months. They found that verbal memory, attention and processing speed improved significantly after 1 year but visuospacial memory did not improve.
A June 2022 Pakistani study of hospitalised Long Covid patients found the most common symptom at discharge was fatigue (26.93%) but a year later only 6.78% still had fatigue.
A June 2022 study of 81 patients aged over 50 found that a significant number (59%) still had neurological problems 1 year after infection. Symptoms assessed included fatigue (38%), concentration difficulties (25%), forgetfulness (25%), sleep disturbances (22%), myalgia (17%), limb weakness (17%), headache (16%), impaired sensation (16%) and hyposmia (15%).
A January 2022 Australian study found Long Covid patients had highly activated immune cells and lacked naive T- and B-cells 8 months after infection.
A May 2022 European study looked at almost 10,000 people who’d had COVID-19 between March 2020 and August 2021. It found these people had ahigher prevalence of symptoms of depression and poorer sleep quality 5-6 months after infection.
Loss of Smell and Taste
A June 2022 meta-analysis of 3699 patients found that by 180 days (6 months) 95% of people had recovered their sense of smell and 98% had recovered their sense of taste. The study predicted 5% of people would have ongoing olfactory issues for an undefined amount of time. A different study from April 2022 looked at a group of 2020 COVID-19 patients after 200 days. 60% of women and 48% of men reported less than 80% of their pre-illness smell ability.
A May 2022 study of 113 people underwent cardiopulminary exercise tests at around 160 days after acute COVID-19 infection. It found that those who had been hospitalised as well as Long Covid patients had “persistent functional limitations when compared with active controls.”
Personal Stories of Recovery From Long Covid
I rested my way to recovery from long Covid. I urge others to do the same by Fiona Lowenstein, The Guardian, 21 June 2021.
“I experienced daily debilitating symptoms from mid-March through June of , during which time the only treatments I pursued (other than initial supplemental oxygen in the hospital) were rest and pacing. In June I started to experience major improvements that allowed me to mostly regain my old way of life. I was able to accept a full-time job, walk and cycle around the city as needed, and return to a regular exercise schedule. Today, I can comfortably work full-time and exercise six times per week. My few remaining symptoms are minor and manageable.”
Some Patients Are Reporting Long COVID Recoveries—But Experts Still Don’t Fully Understand Why by Jamie Ducharme, Time, 9 June 2021
“Netta Wang, a 24-year-old from California who tested positive for COVID-19 in August 2020, can’t say for sure that the vaccine helped her feel better, but she did notice an improvement in her symptoms after getting her second Moderna dose in March. Around the same time, her doctor recommended that she begin exercising again to help rebuild her strength and energy. Wang was nervous, since many people with Long COVID feel worse after physical exertion, but was pleasantly surprised that she was able to ride a bike without relapsing. Her strength slowly returned and she now considers herself 95% recovered, though she’s not sure whether that’s thanks to the vaccine, physical activity or pure chance.”
I’ve Recovered From Long Covid. I’m One of the Lucky Ones by Laura M. Holson, The New York Times June 21, 2021 Updated Oct. 27, 2021
“In April 2020 I was diagnosed with Covid-19 and, for nearly 10 months, was subject to chest pain, fatigue, fever, night sweats and other maladies that continued long after the virus left my body. I wrote about the experience for The Times Magazine earlier this year, wondering if I would ever feel like myself again.
“Happily, I seem to be back to normal.”
(see also https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/21/magazine/long-covid-nightmare.html)
How Long Does It Take To Recover From Covid? (subheading: “Adjusting to Medium Covid”) by Nina Feldman, WHYY (PBS), 7 February, 2022
“My crashes have been going on for five weeks since testing negative. They seem like they’re getting better, slowly, as a result of diligent rest and almost nothing else. Probably — hopefully — I won’t end up among the statistics that the studies I cited count as long COVID cases…
“Despite it being my job to know lots about COVID infections, I was simply not prepared for a weeks-long recovery process. If I hadn’t started talking to other people who dealt with ongoing fatigue, I would have almost certainly just tried to push through it. I tried to, at first — as I said, I’m active and otherwise healthy, and I’ve willed myself out of a lingering illness before. But this is not a run-of-the-mill illness, and approaching it that way would have very likely prolonged the recovery process.”
Covid Care Group has user-submitted recovery stories on this page. Be aware that people are attributing their recovery to all sorts of things (including unproven and discredited treatments). Remember to be skeptical; the plural of anecdote is not data.
Note: Professor of infectious diseases Paul Garner wrote a Long Covid recovery story in the British Medical Journal in 2021. Unfortunately he credited a “brain retraining” program with his recovery, not the rest, pacing and gentle return to exercise he was also practicing. Brain retraining programs are not supported by evidence (see more on the Be Wary page). There was significant backlash and criticism of his assertions. Cort Johnson from Health Rising wrote this useful blog post about Garner’s recovery.
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Article last updated September 2022. Check the Long Covid News page to see if there’s new info.