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For Survivors, COVID-Related Heart, Lung Issues Can Ease Over Time

TUESDAY, Sept. 8, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Long-term heart and lung damage can occur in COVID-19 patients, but it may ease with time, according to a new study.

A second study found that COVID-19 patients recover faster if they begin rehabilitation as soon as possible after getting off a respirator or leaving intensive care.

"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 researcher Sabina Sahanic, a clinical Ph.D. student at University Clinic in Innsbruck, Austria.

"The findings from this study show the importance of implementing structured follow-up care for patients with severe COVID-19 infection. Importantly, CT unveiled lung damage in this patient group that was not identified by lung function tests," she said.

Both studies were presented at a virtual meeting of the European Respiratory Society.

Sahanic's research included 86 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Austria who were enrolled between April 29 and June 9.

The patients, average age 61, were evaluated six, 12 and 24 weeks after leaving the hospital. At their first visit, more than half had at least one persistent symptom -- mainly breathlessness and coughing. CT scans showed that 88% still had lung damage.

By their second visit at 12 weeks, patients' symptoms had improved and 56% had signs of lung damage. Findings from the evaluations at 24 weeks weren't available yet.

"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 in a meeting news release.

The other study included 19 patients with severe COVID-19. They spent an average of three weeks in intensive care and two weeks in a pulmonary ward before being transferred to a clinic for about three weeks of pulmonary rehabilitation.

A walking test evaluated their weekly progress. At the start of rehab, they could walk only an average of 16% of the distance they should manage to walk if healthy.

That average increased to 43% after three weeks of rehab. While a significant improvement, it's still far below normal, the researchers noted.

"The most important finding was that patients who were admitted to pulmonary rehabilitation shortly after leaving intensive care progressed faster than those who spent a longer period in the pulmonary ward where they remained inactive," said study author Yara Al Chikhanie. She's a Ph.D. student at the Dieulefit Santé clinic for pulmonary rehabilitation and the Hp2 Lab at Grenoble Alps University in France.

"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," Al Chikhanie said in the release.

Patients who started rehabilitation in the week after coming off their ventilators progressed faster than those who were admitted after two weeks, she added. But how soon they can start rehab depends on when their doctors deem them medically stable.

"Despite the significant improvement, the average period of three weeks in rehabilitation wasn't enough for them to recover completely," Al Chikhanie said.

Data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until peer-reviewed for publication in a medical journal.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.

SOURCE: European Respiratory Society, news release, Sept. 7, 2020

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