A study conducted by doctors in Wuhan, China, last month found that coronavirus patients who were believed to have recovered from the virus experienced long-term lung damage months after their diagnosis.
Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, was the initial epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak when it began in December 2019. Since then, Hubei has recorded over 68,000 coronavirus cases, the highest number of cases of any province in China.
The virus has since been declared a pandemic and has resulted in over 19 million infections and more than 715,000 deaths globally.
According to UK daily The Times, the research conducted by Doctor Peng Zhiyong of the Zhongnan Hospital at Wuhan University was part of a year-long study, which tracked 107 hospital patients who suffered viral pneumonia and needed to be intubated due to COVID-19.
Peng’s research found that after nearly three months, 90% of those patients who survived severe cases of COVID-19 were left with debilitating lung damage, The Times said. The average age of the patients was 59.
According to The Times, tests conducted on the recovered patients showed that they could walk an average of 500 meters (1,600 feet) in 6 minutes, notably slower than the pace of a healthy person.
“The results revealed that the patients’ immune systems are still recovering,” Peng said, according to The Times, adding that about 1 in 10 patients lost the antibody crucial to fighting the coronavirus.
Notably, Peng said that many of the patients exhibited symptoms of depression and felt a sense of shame for contracting severe cases of the virus. According to the Chinese-state tabloid Global Times, the patients reported that family members still refused to sit down with them for a meal.
Global Times added that less than half of the recovered patients had managed to return to work. The outlet also cited a similar study conducted by Doctor Liang Tengxiao of the Dongzhimen Hospital in Beijing, which showed that some patients over 65 who recovered from severe coronavirus cases still relied on oxygen machines to breathe, three months after recovering from the illness.
While the long-term impacts of the novel coronavirus are still being studied, studies have shown that COVID-19, like other respiratory diseases, can lead to lasting lung damage.
Panagis Galiatsatos, a lung disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, wrote in April that COVID-19 can cause complications like pneumonia, sepsis, and in severe cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome.
“While most people recover from pneumonia without any lasting lung damage, pneumonia associated with COVID-19 may be severe,” Galiatsatos wrote.
Acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, often leaves patients unable to breathe on their own and can be fatal, Galiatsatos noted.
“People who survive ARDS and recover from COVID-19 may have lasting pulmonary scarring,” he said.
Galiatsatos said that the health impacts of COVID-19 appear to linger even after patients test negative for the virus.
“Even after the disease has passed, lung injury may result in breathing difficulties that might take months to improve,” he added.