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More than half of cancer patients who become infected with COVID-19 show lingering symptoms, according to a new study. The study, published in eLife, looked at 312 patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 between March and September 2020 and followed them until May 2021.

Patients were asked to record symptoms including:

  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Altered sense of smell or taste
  • Muscle aches
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Limitations with daily activities

Symptoms that persisted after 30 days from initial infection were considered long COVID. Of the 312 patients studied, 60% developed long COVID. According to the study, the most common symptoms reported included fatigue (82%), sleep disturbances (78%), muscle aches (67%) and gastrointestinal symptoms (61%). Also 63% of women reported long COVID symptoms compared to 37% of men.

Dr. John Greene, chair, Infectious Diseases Program

Dr. John Greene, Chair, Infectious Diseases Program

“Because of the mild subjective nature of qualifying, those kinds of symptoms can be common for a lot of people with cancer due to age, going through treatments or immunotherapy,” said  Dr. John Greene, chair of the Infectious Diseases Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “I found it interesting that women were more likely than men to have it. Women are typically more likely to have autoimmunity after COVID with autoimmune antibodies, which means their immune system attacks itself.”

High blood pressure is a known risk factor for more severe acute COVID, but researchers found that patients with high blood pressure were actually less likely to develop long COVID.

“Men with hypertension typically take ACE-2 inhibitors and have more receptors,” Greene said. “These aren’t necessarily immune modulators, but there is a possibility that people on these medications could have hyperimmune response modified to a lower level so they don’t have as much organ damage.”

Among patients who developed long COVID symptoms, 16 were readmitted to the hospital due to the virus.

“They found that people that were really sick and deathly ill didn’t necessarily have more long COVID symptoms,” Greene said. “You could theorize that patients with hematologic cancers were underrepresented. Solid tumors accounted for about 70% of the participants. If you’re a heme patient, your immune system is much more immunosuppressed and less likely to have long COVID compared to solid tumor patients. These patients are much more likely to die of the infection and get acutely ill, but they don’t have the long COVID symptoms because their immune system stays low for a year to two years until they’re in remission.”