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Does Omicron cause long Covid? How long symptoms last - and what we know about long-term effects of variant

The chances of suffering long-term symptoms does not appear to be linked to how ill you are when you first get Covid

Covid cases have gradually been falling across the UK in recent weeks, paving the way for the final restrictions to be lifted.

Recent figures show that 97% of local areas saw a fall in infections in the week to 7 February, while just 12% had a week-on-week rise.

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A person is considered to have long Covid if symptoms persist for longer than 12 weeks (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)

The promising figures come after scientists said the Omicron wave has now peaked in the UK and the Prime Minister has signalled his intention to start treating coronavirus more like flu.

Infection from Omicron has generally been found to cause milder illness than previous strains, but it is possible for symptoms to be severe - and for some people, long-lasting.

But what is known about the long-term effects of Omicron? Here’s what you need to know.

Does Omicron cause long Covid?

As Omicron was only identified in late November last year, scientists say it is still too early to fully understand the relationship between the variant, vaccination and how long symptoms can last after infection.

A person is only considered to have long Covid if symptoms persist for longer than 12 weeks after the initial infection.

As such, it will take until at least March for anyone who contracted Omicron to notice any signs of long Covid. After this point, researchers should be able to better understand the long-lasting effects of the variant.

Omicron has so far been found to cause less severe initial illness than the likes of the Delta and Alpha strains that came before it, but the basic symptoms of infection are very similar which suggests that long-term effects could also be alike.

The fact that most people experience mild illness does not necessarily mean there is a reduced risk of developing long Covid.

Studies from earlier waves in the pandemic indicate that many people who suffered with mild illness, or were asymptomatic, went on to develop symptoms that lasted for months, so it is quite possible that people who were infected with Omicron could experience long-term symptoms.

In a recent interview, US infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, stressed that developing long Covid was a possibility regardless of the variant a person was infected with.

He said: “Long Covid can happen no matter what virus variant occurs.

“There’s no evidence that there’s any difference between Delta or Beta or now Omicron.

“We should always be aware that when people get symptomatic infection…anywhere from 10 to up to 30 plus percent of people will go on to have persistence of symptoms.”

However, some experts believe that the incidence of long Covid may be lower as Omicron does not appear to cause a high or persistent rise in inflammatory markers in the body during infection.

Long Covid has been found to be more debilitating in cases where a person has suffered serious inflammation.

Andrew Catchpole, virologist and chief scientific officer at hVIVO, said he does not expect a higher incidence of long Covid cases in proportion to infections with Omicron.

He told Healthline: “While Omicron is more infectious, infectivity is not linked to an increased likelihood of long Covid. It is more linked to severity.

“[As] on average, Omicron infections are less severe than what was seen with other variants or the original strain, we would expect the proportion of long Covid cases to be lower with Omicron.”

How long can Omicron symptoms last?

Symptoms of Omicron should typically clear within about five days and will be mild in most cases.

The ZOE Covid study app lists the follow as the most common symptoms of Omicron:

  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Persistent cough
  • Sore throat

Other symptoms can include body aches and pains, particularly in the lower back, night sweats, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and skin rashes.

While most people will feel better in a few days or weeks, some people can take up to 12 weeks to make a full recovery.

Anyone who is still suffering symptoms beyond 12 weeks is considered to have long Covid, which can encompass a wide range of ongoing health problems.

Common long-term effects can include extreme tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain, brain fog, heart palpitations, insomnia, dizziness, joint and muscle pain, depression and anxiety.

Does vaccination lower the risk of long Covid?

Vaccines primarily prevent people from becoming seriously ill from coronavirus infection, but they do not prevent the risk of being infected entirely.

In fact, vaccines have not been as effective in preventing infection with Omicron as reinfections have been found to be more common with this variant.

However, a previous study published in The Lancet - which was conducted before the Omicron variant emerged - found that people who had received two vaccine doses and had a breakthrough infection were half as likely as those who were unvaccinated to report symptoms lasting at least 28 days after infection.

Another study, which has not been peer reviewed, found similar results.

Findings showed that people who had received at least one vaccine dose before infection were seven to 10 times less likely to report two or more symptoms of long Covid 12 to 20 weeks after testing positive.

Researchers also found that people who received their first vaccine dose after contracting coronavirus were less likely to develop long Covid than those who had not been jabbed, and the sooner people were vaccinated after infection, the lower the risk of developing long-term symptoms.

However, while vaccination appears to lower the risk of developing long Covid, reinfection can still cause symptoms to resurface.

Anyone who is concerned about symptoms four weeks or more after having Covid is advised to contact their GP and ask about long Covid. Patients should be offered an initial consultation which will help determine any further assessments or care that is needed.

More information on recovery from coronavirus can be found on the Your COVID Recovery website.

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