COVID-19 has been around on our planet for just a year, so a lot is yet unknown about its long-term impact on the health of those who contract the virus but recover from their initial infections. But what initial studies and clinical experience have revealed so far is scary enough for anyone potentially exposed to the virus to take it seriously.
“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but ‘post-COVID’ lungs look worse than ANY type of terrible smoker’s lungs we’ve ever seen,” Brittany Bankhead-Kendall, an assistant professor of surgery with Texas Tech University, wrote in a tweet last week. “And they collapse. And they clot off. And the shortness of breath lingers on… & on… & on.”
After the tweet went viral, Bankhead-Kendall told CBS in an interview, “Everyone’s just so worried about the mortality thing and that’s terrible and it’s awful. But man, for all the survivors and the people who have tested positive this is—it’s going to be a problem.”
Bankhead-Kendall, who has treated thousands of patients since the pandemic began last March, says patients who had COVID-19 symptoms show a severe chest X-ray every time, and those who were asymptomatic show a severe chest X-ray 80 percent of the time.
X-rays of healthy lungs are usually clean with a lot of black, which is air. Photos of a smoker’s lung show white lines indicative of scarring and congestion. And chest X-rays of COVID-19 patients’ lungs, as Bankhead-Kendall found, is filled with white.
The good news is that the whites will eventually fade away—for some patients, anyway.
“When someone recovers from pneumonia, it’s going to take some time for their chest X-rays to improve. Chest X-rays lag your clinical improvement. So you may be better, but your chest X-ray still looks bad,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBS News Thursday. “And we know that people with COVID-19 can get severe pneumonia, and some of that pneumonia will lead to damage to the lungs that will take time to heal.”
“And some of it may be permanent,” Adalja added, ominously.
According to a study reported by ABC News that studied COVID-19 survivors for up to half a year, three in four patients experience lingering symptoms, such as fatigue, anxiety and depression, for months after apparent recovery.
“It’s important to remember, even if you’re not hospitalized, or die, lingering effects can have an impact on your quality of life and ability to do your job,” said ABC News’ chief medical correspondent Jen Ashton.
A separate study by Northwestern Medicine published in the journal Science Translational Medicine last month found that COVID-19 can cause permanent lung scarring so severe that could only be fixed by lung transplants.
“Recovery from lung damage takes time,” Panagis Galiatsatos, a lung disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, explained to Miami Herald. “There’s the initial injury to the lungs, followed by scarring. Over time, the tissue heals, but it can take three months to a year or more for a person’s lung function to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.”
COVID can also wreak havoc on the neurological system and mental health, with long-term repercussions.
“Infection with COVID-19 in hospitalized patients has been associated with altered mental status, seizures, and stroke,” Shaheen E. Lakhan, a neurologist and researcher, told VeryWellMind. “Even after the infection stabilizes and clears, residual symptoms remain in the form of persistent brain fog, dizziness, and headaches in so-called COVID long haulers.
The pandemic has already lowered the U.S. average life expectancy by 1.13 years in 2020 after the coronavirus took over 300,000 lives, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the unknown long-term impact of it could make that projection even more grave.