Some of the patients in the trial had been on a mechanical ventilator – AP
Lungs can repair themselves in just three months after a serious bout of coronavirus, a new study has revealed, raising hope that patients will not be living with debilitating symptoms for years on end.
Doctors said trials revealed that nearly half of patients showed no evidence of lung damage at 12 weeks.
Although they confirm long-standing fears that Covid patients can suffer serious effects weeks after recovering from the virus, the results are the first to show that these tend to heal over time.
Eighty-six patients from an outbreak hotspot in the Tyrolean region of Austria were hospitalised between April 29 and June 9, then followed up at six, 12 and 24 weeks after discharge.
At the six-week visit, 88 per cent of patients showed evidence of lung damage, but this dropped to 56 per cent at the 12-week check-up. The results from the 24-week visits are not yet ready to be published.
Meanwhile, 65 per cent of the cohort showed general symptoms of lung problems at the six-week visit, with breathlessness the most common symptom – at 47 per cent – followed by coughing at 15 per cent.
By 12 weeks, breathlessness had improved and was present in 39 per cent of patients. The proportion of patients coughing at this stage did not improve as markedly, however, only dropping to 13 per cent.
Dr Sabina Sahanic, who worked on the study at the University Clinic in Innsbruck, said: “The bad news is that people show lung impairment from Covid-19 weeks after discharge; the good news is that the impairment tends to ameliorate over time, which suggests the lungs have a mechanism for repairing themselves.”
The average age of the patients was 61, with 65 per cent of them being male. Nearly half were former smokers, and more than six in 10 were overweight or obese.
One in five had been admitted to an intensive care unit, and roughly the same proportion were placed on a mechanical ventilator. The patients were followed up with lung function tests.
Only 23 per cent performed at 80 per cent less than normal at six weeks, but the proportion did not improve significantly over time. CT scans showed the score that defines the severity of overall lung damage decreased from eight points at six weeks to four points at 12 weeks.
Presented at the European Respiratory Society International Conference on Monday, the results follow months of warnings from medical experts that people who suffered badly with coronavirus can expect long-lasting effects (see panel below).
In July the NHS announced plans to launch an online Covid rehabilitation service, including virtual access to physiotherapists, in recognition of long-term needs.
Another study, published alongside the Innsbruck research, found that the sooner patients begin pulmonary rehabilitation after coming off a ventilator, the faster they recovered. Spending days on a ventilator can result in severe muscle loss, particularly in the muscles used for breathing.
Pulmonary rehabilitation, which involves physical exercises and advice on managing symptoms, including shortness of breath and post-traumatic stress disorder, is crucial for helping patients to recover fully, the researchers said.
Yara Al Chikhanie, from Grenoble Alps University, said: “The sooner rehabilitation started and the longer it lasted, the faster and better was the improvement in patients’ walking and breathing capacities and muscle gain.
“Patients who started rehabilitation in the week after coming off their ventilators progressed faster than those who were admitted after two weeks.”