Long-haul COVID-19 patients face many health threats – including a higher chance of dying – up to 6 months after they catch the virus, according to a massive studyin the journal Nature.
Researchers examined more than 87,000 COVID-19 patients and nearly 5 million control patients in a federal database. They found COVID-19 patients had a 59% higher risk of death up to 6 months after infection, compared with noninfected people.
Those findings translate into about 8 extra deaths per 1,000 patients over 6 months, because many deaths caused by long-term COVID complications are not recorded as COVID-19 deaths, the researchers said. Among patients who were hospitalized and died after more than 30 days, there were 29 excess deaths per 1,000 patients over 6 months.
“As far as total pandemic death toll, these numbers suggest that the deaths we’re counting due to the immediate viral infection are only the tip of the iceberg,” Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, the senior author of the study and a director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System, said in a news release from the Washington University, St. Louis.
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says more than 3 million people worldwide and about 570,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus-related reasons.
Long-haul COVID patients also had a much higher chance of getting sick, and not just in the respiratory system, according to the study.
The patients had a high rate of stroke and other nervous system ailments, mental health problems such as depression, the onset of diabetes, heart disease and other coronary problems, diarrhea and digestive disorders, kidney disease, blood clots, joint pain, hair loss, and general fatigue.
Patients often had clusters of these ailments. And the more severe the case of COVID-19, the higher the chance of long-term health problems, the study said.
Researchers based their study on health care databases of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Besides the 87,000 COVID patients, the database included about 5 million patients who didn’t catch COVID. The veterans in the study were about 88% men, but the large sample size included 8,880 women with confirmed cases, the news release said.
Dr. Al-Aly, an assistant professor at Washington University, said the study shows that long-haul COVID-19 could be “America’s next big health crisis.”
“Our study demonstrates that, up to 6 months after diagnosis, the risk of death following even a mild case of COVID-19 is not trivial and increases with disease severity,” he said. “Given that more than 30 million Americans have been infected with this virus, and given that the burden of long COVID-19 is substantial, the lingering effects of this disease will reverberate for many years and even decades.”
A version of this article first appeared on WebMD.com.