‘I'm losing my hair and can't play with my kids': The Covid long-haulers still battling symptoms a year on
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND/TARA SCOTT/CARON GILL PHOTOGRAPHY
A year ago, mum-of-two Tara Scott was an outgoing, bubbly, self-employed business owner looking forward to the future. She caught Covid on March 19, a few days before the lockdown.
Now unemployed and chronically ill with long Covid, she can sometimes only last three hours before going back to bed. The virus has ravaged her body so much that she has entered early menopause at the age of 43.
The Manningtree resident is among hundreds of so-called ‘long-haulers’ who have been battling extreme fatigue, headaches, chest pains and skin rashes almost every day for the past year, despite contracting Covid over a year ago.
According to Dr Peter Holloway, who is overseeing long Covid treatment in Suffolk and north east Essex, more than one in 10 patients who have had coronavirus go on to have persistent, debilitating symptoms for more than 12 weeks after infection.
The Mendlesham-based GP warned: “Even though we can see light at the end of the tunnel, long Covid is going to be almost a second pandemic, which is going to be with us for many years to come.”
Currently, there is no treatment for long Covid, but a clinic set up within four weeks in December is now assessing patients’ symptoms and signposting them to support such as speech and language, physiotherapy or psychological help.
Tara, who lives near Manningtree, has just been referred to the clinic and will be assessed on April 6. She is currently fighting through another relapse, with painful blocked lymph nodes, recurring headaches, extreme fatigue, chest pains and a rash.
“You just don’t know how you’re going to feel from day to day,” she said.
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“Sometimes I’m up for three hours and feel completely exhausted and have to go back to bed. I’d really like to go and get a job.
"I’ve had interviews but when they ask about health problems or disabilities, you have to say you suffer from long Covid, which is like ME.
“I just feel extremely deflated. A year ago I was an outgoing, bubbly person, self-employed, able to do anything, now, I can’t really do a thing."
Three months ago, the 43-year-old was also given the crushing news after tests carried out by her doctor confirmed she had entered early menopause, likely down to Covid’s savage attack on her body.
'How much hair have you lost mummy?'
Louise Reynolds, 44, has her “coronavirus anniversary” coming up on March 31. Her initial illness was mild, but she lost her sense of smell and taste and discovered it was Covid-19 through an antibody test in July.
The mum-of-two, from Needham Market, managed to go back to work but as the weeks went on, had four rounds of antibiotics as her body struggled to fight off illness.
Around month six, she relapsed and had to sign off from work.
She experienced common long Covid symptoms such as losing hair, experienced memory loss and extreme tiredness.
“Hair loss was becoming a running joke with the children, saying ‘how much have you lost today, mummy?” she said. “It’s still really noticeable when I have a shower or brush my hair.
“A few months in I started to notice my cognitive abilities had started to really break down. I deliver training for Community Action Suffolk, working with charities and communities, and I found myself mute in meetings.
“I had horrible memory loss – I left taps on, keys in the door, you’re trapped in this mist, this fogginess. I still can’t smell anything, so if the gas is on, my children have to tell me."
The usually energetic and happy mum has become increasingly withdrawn and when it snowed in January was unable to take her children to the park.
“Daddy had to take them with a head torch on in the night when he got home from work,” she added. “It’s so sad waving them off when they go on bike rides."
She found solace in the Long Covid Support group on Facebook which now has 37,000 members from around the UK. The 44-year-old is now campaigning for a Long Covid register to be set up to establish the true scale of the issue.
For her own treatment, Louise was assessed by the Long Covid service in January but paid to go private for additional tests, where she was diagnosed with a condition attacking the automatic nervous system - heart, bladder and blood vessels - called dysautonomia.
Dr Holloway says the first port of call should be GPs, who will screen for other conditions. Because there is a whole spectrum of symptoms, it can be difficult to establish a diagnosis of Long Covid.
Common symptoms include extreme tiredness and fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pains or tightness, cognitive issues such as brain fog, heart palpitations, tinnitus and ear pain, continuing coughs, fevers, headaches and changes to smell and taste.
'My thoughts are getting darker'
Justyna, also from the Ipswich area, contracted the virus in November and is still experiencing fluctuating fever. The 34-year-old says she has heart palpitations, and can hardly walk. This week, she decided to go on antidepressants as her mental health is suffering.
“I’m not able to do a five-minute walk without a break,” she said.
“I’m not sleeping, the maximum amount of sleep per day is four-and-a-half hours and that’s the most I can do.
“My thoughts are getting darker and darker every day. Before, I was an optimistic person, always seeing the bright side of things.”
'Our whole family had Covid'
Saxmundham mum Fliss Challis’ whole family, including husband Richard, 44, daughter Florence, nine and son Will, seven, contracted Covid over Christmas.
Now almost 12 weeks on, the 46-year-old is still experiencing itching and rashes all over her body.
Her husband, once a keen runner, is left breathless by light exercise, while her daughter was asymptomatic and has no recurring symptoms.
Fliss is most worried about her son, whose symptoms were initially mild.
“My son, who loves school, is off today because he is unwell. He had swollen glands and a sore throat, very tired and achy, which he does tend to get since he’s had Covid,” she said.
“We find when he comes home, he can be quite wiped out, particularly at weekends.
“He’s also sleeping a lot more. We went for a walk on Saturday, only walked into town to buy some sweets and he could barely get home. I was close to ringing my husband to come and pick him up.
“That’s crazy, he’s seven, he used to roar around on a bike and play football, at the moment he's struggling to maintain that energy level which is really sad.”
The mum-of-two claims medics have dismissed her son’s symptoms, as children are far more likely to experience milder illness than adults.
“I agree he wasn’t as poorly as us, he did manage to carry on,” she added.
“But he was still quite unwell and now, he is still not well.”
Dr Holloway said long Covid can “attack anybody”, adding: “It’s not a preserve of the middle aged, there is probably a preponderance of young people, but that may also be because they are more affected by debilitating symptoms.
“Nobody is protected from it. There also doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the severity of the acute infection and your chances of getting long Covid.”
Going forward, he said the Long Covid service will continue to evolve as more is learned about symptoms and treatment.
Those referred have follow-up assessments within six weeks and although there is not currently a priority list, Dr Holloway’s team are working to establish a priority system post-assessment so patients with the most debilitating symptoms are seen first.
Research teams are working with Ipswich Hospital and the assessment service so experts can gather detailed information.
In February, health secretary Matt Hancock announced an £18.5m package of four Government-funded studies into Long Covid.
“In order to effectively help (Long Covid victims), we need to better understand long Covid and identify therapeutics that can help recovery,” he said. “This funding will kickstart four ambitious projects to do just that.”
For long Covid support, visit the Your Covid Recovery website.