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How Long-haul COVID Is Affecting Families Mentally and Emotionally

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Key Takeaways

  • Long COVID is typically defined as symptoms lingering for more than four weeks.
  • A study shows family members of long COVID survivors battle worry and frustration.
  • Mental health counseling and community support can help family members cope with the impact of the virus on their loved one.

Lingering COVID-19 symptoms, or long-haul COVID-19, aren’t difficult for the patients alone. A new study published in BMJ Open reveals that long-haul COVID-19 has a significant detrimental impact on family members of survivors, including worry, frustration, and sleep difficulties.

Patients and Families Provide Insight

Researchers with Cardiff University and the University of Hertfordshire conducted the study via an online survey. The goal was to gain insight into the quality of life of COVID-19 survivors and their family members.

Distributed via social media platforms, the anonymous questionnaire collected information from adults ages 18 and older. Of the respondents, 735 participants had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 571 people were their partners, and 164 participants were family members. Data were collected from May until August of 2020.

Rubina Shah, MPH, PhD student

Family members…experienced considerable emotional and psychological impact due to their relative’s COVID-19, with 93% of family members reporting being worried, 82% feeling frustrated, and 78% being sad.

— Rubina Shah, MPH, PhD student

The study helped highlight the struggle that family members endure, as they help their loved one battle the virus. “Family members…experienced considerable emotional and psychological impact due to their relative’s COVID-19, with 93% of family members reporting being worried, 82% feeling frustrated, and 78% being sad,” states Rubina Shah, MPH, a PhD student at Cardiff University in the U.K. and lead author of the study. “Over…half of the family members reported impact on their sleep and sex life,” Shah notes.

Other noteworthy findings include an impact on eating habits, family activities, and work. An increase in family expenses was also reported. While not diminishing the lasting symptoms COVID sufferers feel, the results give voice to the sometimes silent yet supportive family members.

The study does provide helpful insights but is not without areas of weakness.

Because the study was provided online, only those with internet access could respond. Additionally, the survey itself could only be answered by those who could read and understand the English language. Although the methodology and subsequent results are not as far-reaching as desired, they are not without merit.

“Our results have shown the substantial impact of survivor’s long COVID-19 on their partners and family members,” adds Shah.

How the Results Can Support Families

The CDC and other organizations continue to monitor the impact of long-haul COVID-19 on its survivors. But few reports have focused on how families cope with their loved ones’ ongoing sickness. The results provide support for the help they need.

The impact is not just mental and emotional. Continuing to fight the virus can also exact a financial toll. If the patient suffering with COVID is the main breadwinner but too fatigued to work, a family is faced with the task of securing that extra income. A patient may no longer be able to care for themselves or perform daily tasks around the house, thrusting family members into the role of a caregiver.

“The study adds to the evolving evidence of ‘long COVID’ but also adds new evidence about its impact on family members of COVID-19 survivors, setting alarm bells among healthcare agencies and policy makers and informing them of post-COVID support needs of family members, in addition to that of the survivors,” explains Shah.

Validation is also a key impact of the study. Many families may suffer in isolation. The study findings help them know that they are not alone in the far-reaching impact they are experiencing from long COVID.

What Is Long COVID?

There is no consensus on the terminology to refer to this phenomenon. However, long COVID is generally considered to be symptoms lasting beyond four weeks. Patients with mild symptoms at the four-week mark may be encouraged to continue to be watchful. Those experiencing severe issues may have additional medical intervention.

“We notice a lot of people with fatigue. We have symptoms which are called post-exertional malaise, which is excessive pain in the muscles and discomfort from just minimal activity,” states Alba Azola, MD, co-director of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Post Acute COVID Team Clinic at John Hopkins Hospital and assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at John Hopkins School of Medicine.

She adds that heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and brain fog are just some of the other potential symptoms.

What Else Can They Do?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to COVID. While the vaccine is helpful in bridging the gap between sickness and health, there are numerous people still engaged in fighting the viral symptoms. Shah offers insight into how families can help.

“The study has shown a huge emotional and psychological impact of a person’s long COVID on their family members. It is important that family members report any such impact to their healthcare providers who can then direct them to appropriate support, which could include mental health counseling, signposting to community support, and social services,” Shah advises.

Keeping a unified perspective can also be an encouragement and support to the family members.

Alba Azola, MD

It becomes a whole family issue.

— Alba Azola, MD

“It becomes a whole family issue,” Dr. Azola concludes.

What This Means For You

Family members of long COVID survivors may be thrust into the role of caregiver for their loved one or have to seek additional employment to support the family. The study highlights the tremendous stress that can accompany dealing with their new quality of life. Compassion and patience are required for the individuals battling COVID and those that support them.

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  1. Shah R, Ali FM, Nixon SJ, Ingram JR, Salek SM, Finlay AY. Measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the quality of life of the survivors, partners and family members: a cross-sectional international online survey. BMJ Open. 2021;11(5):e047680. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-047680

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Post-COVID conditions. Updated July 12, 2021.