2nd Jul 2020

COVID-19 FAQ: what are the long-term health effects of COVID-19 on the lungs?

2nd Jul 2020

Curated by Endre Szvetnik

Although about 80 per cent of people with symptoms of Covid-19 experience only a mild form of the disease, those patients who have spent time in intensive care units (ICU) often have long months of rehabilitation ahead of them.

Rehabilitation can take months after leaving ICU

Among the many problems they have to deal with, research has highlighted potential long-term lung damage. COVID-19 may provoke severe pneumonia in hospitalised patients filling the air sacs in their lungs with fluid, limiting their ability to breathe. The result can be lasting shortness of breath that may take months to recover from. The numbers suggest that the majority of patients leaving ICU need to prepare for this outcome: a Chinese longitudinal study from March found that 94% of the hospitalised patients it tracked were discharged with signs of with lung damage in CT scans. As pneumonia progresses, patients may experience acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) resulting in lung failure. The consequence is that people are unable to breathe on their own and need to be put on mechanical ventilation – potentially for several weeks. A study published in 2017 following 645 ARDS survivors found that about half of them were not able to live independently six months after being discharged from hospital. COVID-19 induced pneumonia and ARDS can result in lung tissue scarring (pulmonary fibrosis) when the body replaces cells damaged by the virus with scar tissue.

How long is recovery? Although more time needs to pass to study recovering patients, scientists are using the experience of a previous coronavirus pandemic to predict what COVID-19 survivors can expect. A large-scale analysis of SARS patients during the 2003 pandemic found reduced lung function for a significant proportion of patients even six months after leaving the hospital. Other studies indicate that if the patient suffered ARDS, full lung capacity could take 5 years to recover. During this period they may experience a reduced quality of life, for example, they can exercise less than normal and potentially suffer from neuropsychological disorders. Sadly, there is currently no cure for pulmonary fibrosis, but its progress can be slowed down with drugs.

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard. NB: The pinboard contains research papers that have not been peer-reviewed yet, meaning that they have not gone through the standard scientific validation process yet.

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Curated by

Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.

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