Lung damage found in 11% of severe COVID survivors

About 11% of people who’ve been hospitalized for COVID-19 develop interstitial lung disease (ILD), according to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which concludes that “health services should monitor at-risk individuals to elucidate long-term functional implications.”

The American Lung Association (ALA) described ILD as “an umbrella term used for a large group of diseases that cause scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs. The scarring causes stiffness in the lungs which makes it difficult to breathe and get oxygen to the bloodstream. Lung damage from ILDs is often irreversible and gets worse over time.”

Researchers with the Imperial College of London collected the data through CT scans of 209 COVID-19 patients 240 days after discharge from the hospital. The patients were chosen because they exhibited symptoms of lung problems, and the findings about them were then applied to a cohort of nearly 3,500 individuals who didn’t have a CT scan to measure the risk of lung abnormalities.

Corresponding author Iain Stewart, Ph.D., said in a press release that “the major implication of these findings is that a substantial number of people discharged from a COVID hospitalization may also have fibrotic abnormalities in their lungs. These results should help concentrate efforts to closely follow at-risk patients. This follow-up should include repeat radiological imaging and lung function testing.”

The most common symptom of ILD is shortness of breath, but symptoms can also include chest discomfort, a dry cough, fatigue and weight loss. The ALA said that “in most cases, by the time the symptoms appear lung damage has already been done so it is important to see your doctor immediately. Severe cases that are left untreated can develop life-threatening complications including high blood pressure, heart or respiratory failure.”

The damage to lungs as a result of COVID-19 touches on how society will come to terms with long COVID, a condition that’s still not clearly understood and for which there are no generally accepted best practices for diagnosis and treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Stewart stated that “for some people, these fibrotic patterns may be stable or resolve, while for others they may lead to longer term lung fibrosis progression, worse quality of life and decreased life expectancy. Earlier detection of progression is essential to improving outcomes.”

Unfortunately, evidence mounts that even children can develop long COVID, which involves the lungs. A study in Radiology in September used MRIs to study lung damage in children because CT scans use ionized radiation and cannot pinpoint lung damage in youngsters all that well since such changes are less pronounced.

In the Radiology study, researchers University Hospital Erlangen in Germany looked at the lung function of 53 children and adolescents who’d been infected with COVID-19. Twenty-nine of the patients had recovered, while 25 had long COVID.

The researchers found persistent pulmonary dysfunction in the youngsters using MRI in children recovered from COVID-19 and who have long COVID. “The further course and outcome of the observed changes currently remains unclear,” the study states. “Our results warrant further surveillance of persistent pulmonary damage in pediatrics and adolescents after SARS-CoV-2 infection.”