COVID-19 patients can suffer long-term lung and heart damage but, in majority cases, this tends to improve over time, according to the first, prospective follow-up of patients infected with the coronavirus, presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress.
Researchers in the COVID-19 ‘hot spot’ in the Tyrolean region of Austria recruited consecutive coronavirus patients to their study, who were hospitalised at the University Clinic of Internal Medicine in Innsbruck, the St Vinzenz Hospital in Zams or the cardio-pulmonary rehabilitation centre in Munster, Austria. In their presentation to the virtual congress, they reported on the first 86 patients enrolled between 29 April and 9 June, although now they have over 150 patients participating. The patients were scheduled to return for evaluation six, 12 and 24 weeks after their discharge from the hospital.
During these visits, clinical examinations, laboratory tests, analysis of the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in arterial blood, lung function tests, computed tomography (CT) scans and echocardiograms were carried out.
At the time of their first visit, more than half of the patients had at least one persistent symptom, predominantly breathlessness and coughing, and CT scans still showed lung damage in 88 per cent of patients.
However, by the time of their next visit 12 weeks after discharge, the symptoms had improved and lung damage was reduced to 56 per cent. At this stage, it is too early to have resulted from the evaluations at 24 weeks.
“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,” said Dr Sabina Sahanic, who is a clinical PhD student at the University Clinic in Innsbruck and part of the team that carried out the study, which includes Associate Professor Ivan Tancevski, Professor Judith Loffler-Ragg and Dr Thomas Sonnweber in Innsbruck.
A total of 56 patients showed persistent symptoms at the time of their six-week visit; breathlessness (dyspnoea) was the most common symptom, followed by coughing. By the 12-week visit, breathlessness had improved and was present in 31 patients ; however, 13 patients were still coughing.