September 15, 2020 -- Patients who have long-term effects for weeks or months after they contract the coronavirus may see improvements in their lung function after 12 weeks, according to a new study.

The study, which tracked 86 COVID-19 “long-haulers” in Austria, was presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress last week.

“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,” Sabina Sahanic, one of the study authors and a PhD student at the University Clinic in Innsbruck, said in a statement.

The research team evaluated the patients between April and June at the 6-week and 12-week points after being released from a hospital. At 6 weeks, about 88% had observable lung damage on CT scans. In addition, 47% had trouble with breathing and 15% had a persistent cough. At 12 weeks, about 56% had lung damage, 39% had trouble with breathing, and the persistent cough remained about the same.

CT scans also showed that lung damage severity decreased by the 12-week mark. The damage, which occurs from inflammation and fluid in the lungs, shows up on scans as white patches known as “ground glass.” At 6 weeks, the patches showed up in nearly all of the patients, and by 12 weeks, was observable in about half of the patients.

Tests showed an improvement in lung function, too. At 6 weeks, about 28% of patients had less than 80% of normal functioning, but at 12 weeks, that dropped to 19%.

The 24-week checkup is underway now. The research team recommended structured follow-up doctor’s visits for COVID-19 patients, particularly those with severe disease and potential lung damage.

“Knowing how patients have been affected long-term by the coronavirus might enable symptoms and lung damage to be treated much earlier and might have a significant impact on further medical recommendations and advice,” Sahanic said.

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European Respiratory Society International Congress, “Persisting pulmonary impairment following severe SARS-CoV-2 infection, preliminary results from the CovILD study.”

European Respiratory Society, “COVID-19 patients suffer long-term lung and heart damage but it can improve with time.”

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