- A new study has identified four long COVID subtypes.
- The most common subtypes involve cardiac and respiratory complications.
- Doctors say breaking down long COVID into subtypes can help patients get better treatment.
Research has found that long COVID affects one in five adults under the age of 65, but scientists are still trying to find out more about the disease. Now, a new study has revealed that there are actually four main subtypes of long COVID.
The study, published in the journal natural medicine, used machine learning to analyze clusters of symptoms in about 35,000 patients with long COVID. (Each patient had at least one lingering symptom after having COVID-19 that lasted between 30 and 180 days after contracting the virus.) The researchers used an algorithm that looked at 137 different symptoms and then categorized the patients into four main groups that appeared.
This is not the first study to attempt to classify long COVIDs. A study published last year divided long-lasting COVID symptoms into three groups: cognitive, respiratory, and everything in between.
“There have been quite a few existing studies demonstrating the existence of a wide range of symptoms and potential signs of long COVID, but it is still unclear whether they are more likely to co-occur from certain manners or to appear individually,” says Fei Wang. , Ph.D., co-author of the latest study and assistant professor of health care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine.”This study aims to fill this knowledge gap by identifying long COVID subphenotypes .”
But what are the different subtypes that the researchers found and why is it important? Here’s what you need to know.
What are the long COVID subtypes?
The researchers found that people with a long history of COVID typically fell into one of the following categories:
- Conditions affecting the heart and renal (kidney) systems
- Conditions that impact the respiratory system, sleep and anxiety issues
- Musculoskeletal and nervous system disorders
- Conditions that impact the digestive and respiratory systems
According to the results, the subtype affecting the cardiac and renal systems was the most common: 34% of patients fell into this category. However, 33% of patients fell into the second category, with respiratory symptoms, anxiety, persistent headaches and insomnia.
After that, 23% of patients belonged to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems group, while only 10% of patients suffered from conditions affecting the intestine.
Long COVID Symptoms
Research is ongoing on long COVID (also known as post-COVID conditions), but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put together a list of symptoms that the organization has also divided into categories. These include:
- Fatigue that interferes with daily life
- Symptoms that worsen after physical or mental exertion
Respiratory and cardiac symptoms
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- brain fog
- Sleep problems
- Dizziness when standing up
- Pins and needles feelings
- Change in smell or taste
- Depression or anxiety
- Joint or muscle pain
- Changes in menstrual cycles
The CDC also notes that there are “symptoms that are difficult to explain and manage.”
Why is this important?
The study didn’t necessarily uncover anything new about the long COVID — it just categorized the data. But long COVID is a broad complication of COVID-19 and it can make it difficult for doctors to accurately identify who may have the disease, as well as how to treat it, says infectious disease specialist William Schaffner, MD, and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It’s a good way to categorize the different types of long COVIDs,” he says. “It will help clinicians understand when their patients come to see them when they may actually have long COVID, given that there is no test for that.”
Not everyone with long COVID will fit neatly into a subtype, says Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. However, he says, breaking down this broad disease into different categories can help doctors and researchers find patterns. “Maybe there are mechanisms or a certain mechanism that drives one subtype more than another,” he says. If doctors can figure out why patients of certain subtypes get sick, it could lead to better research and possibly treatments for those particular patients, he says.
Will this knowledge help us deal with the long COVID?
Knowing the long subtypes of COVID can also “inform future research” on how long COVID lasts, says Dr. Wang, influencing treatment development and public policy.
Dr. Schaffner says researchers are “heading in the right direction” in trying to understand the long COVID. “It’s increasingly being diagnosed as the average internist and family physician becomes more familiar with the long COVID and its various presentations,” he says. Many major medical centers have also formed lengthy COVID clinics to try to study why the disease occurs and how to better treat patients. “When you bring patients together, you can study the long COVID and find better ways to help patients,” says Dr. Schaffner.
If you think you might have long COVID, Dr. Schaffner recommends contacting your healthcare provider to get started. They may be able to refer you to a specialist or send you to a specialist long COVID clinic for help. It’s also a good idea to “watch closely” for the signs and symptoms you have, so you can give your healthcare provider an accurate picture of what’s going on with you, says Dr. Wang.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, health and sex, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives near the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.