Question Are the belief in having had COVID-19 infection and actually having had the infection as verified by SARS-CoV-2 serology testing associated with persistent physical symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Findings In this cross-sectional analysis of 26 823 adults from the population-based French CONSTANCES cohort during the COVID-19 pandemic, self-reported COVID-19 infection was associated with most persistent physical symptoms, whereas laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection was associated only with anosmia. Those associations were independent from self-rated health or depressive symptoms.
Meaning Findings suggest that persistent physical symptoms after COVID-19 infection should not be automatically ascribed to SARS-CoV-2; a complete medical evaluation may be needed to prevent erroneously attributing symptoms to the virus.Abstract
Importance After an infection by SARS-CoV-2, many patients present with persistent physical symptoms that may impair their quality of life. Beliefs regarding the causes of these symptoms may influence their perception and promote maladaptive health behaviors.
Objective To examine the associations of self-reported COVID-19 infection and SARS-CoV-2 serology test results with persistent physical symptoms (eg, fatigue, breathlessness, or impaired attention) in the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Design, Setting, and Participants Participants in this cross-sectional analysis were 26 823 individuals from the French population-based CONSTANCES cohort, included between 2012 and 2019, who took part in the nested SAPRIS and SAPRIS-SERO surveys. Between May and November 2020, an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay was used to detect anti–SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Between December 2020 and January 2021, the participants reported whether they believed they had experienced COVID-19 infection and had physical symptoms during the previous 4 weeks that had persisted for at least 8 weeks. Participants who reported having an initial COVID-19 infection only after completing the serology test were excluded.
Main Outcomes and Measures Logistic regressions for each persistent symptom as the outcome were computed in models including both self-reported COVID-19 infection and serology test results and adjusting for age, sex, income, and educational level.
Results Of 35 852 volunteers invited to participate in the study, 26 823 (74.8%) with complete data were included in the present study (mean [SD] age, 49.4 [12.9] years; 13 731 women [51.2%]). Self-reported infection was positively associated with persistent physical symptoms, with odds ratios ranging from 1.39 (95% CI, 1.03-1.86) to 16.37 (95% CI, 10.21-26.24) except for hearing impairment (odds ratio, 1.45; 95% CI, 0.82-2.55) and sleep problems (odds ratio, 1.14; 95% CI, 0.89-1.46). A serology test result positive for SARS-COV-2 was positively associated only with persistent anosmia (odds ratio, 2.72; 95% CI, 1.66-4.46), even when restricting the analyses to participants who attributed their symptoms to COVID-19 infection. Further adjusting for self-rated health or depressive symptoms yielded similar results. There was no significant interaction between belief and serology test results.
Conclusions and Relevance The findings of this cross-sectional analysis of a large, population-based French cohort suggest that persistent physical symptoms after COVID-19 infection may be associated more with the belief in having been infected with SARS-CoV-2 than with having laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infection. Further research in this area should consider underlying mechanisms that may not be specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A medical evaluation of these patients may be needed to prevent symptoms due to another disease being erroneously attributed to “long COVID.”