By Julia Ries
As doctors and scientists race to understand the many ways in which Covid-19 ― the illness caused by the . Past studies suggest it can diminish people’s quality of life and bring on exercise limitations and neuropsychological disorders, even after they’ve recovered.
“We know from influenza and ARDS and other causes of ARDS that, based on the severity of the acute illness, there can definitely be long-term consequences from the inflammation and scarring,” said Gates. She added that this can lead to “irreversible lung damage and lung impairment that can lead to chronic respiratory symptoms and need for oxygen long-term.”
A study from Beijing looking at the health of recovered SARS patients after 15 years found that about a third of patients had lung issues for a few years following their infection, but the pulmonary damage mostly cleared up by the 15-year mark.
A similar discovery was noted with MERS: During follow-up appointments, about a third of recovered patients had signs of fibrosis, or scarring of the lungs.
“There is clearly an incidence of scarring from SARS,” Horovitz said, adding that scarring is linked to a loss of lung capacity.
Much of the time, these pulmonary issues do seem to improve with time, typically within a few years.
“We may see more lung function impairments, although based on prior research we know that those usually improve over the subsequent months and years,” said Lauren Ferrante, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician and an assistant professor the Yale School of Medicine.
Still, this is based on what is known about similar illnesses; not enough data is available to determine if that will be the case for Covid-19.
People may have impaired mobility
One thing Ferrante is sure will be seen with many patients with a severe case of Covid-19 is a battle with cognitive and physical function in the weeks and months after leaving the hospital.
This is commonly observed with patients admitted to intensive care units for other reasons. Bed rest can take a serious toll on the body; people can experience muscle breakdown quickly when they’re stuck in a bed in the hospital. A Johns Hopkins University study found that for each day a person was on bed rest, their muscle strength dropped from 3% to 11% over the following months and years.
Ferrante is concerned these problems may be magnified after Covid-19. The treatment recovery programs in hospitals usually used to help patients get mobile again are not being delivered. And on top of that, it takes coronavirus patients a long time to recover — usually about two weeks.
“That’s more time that these patients are spending in bed, not moving, stuck on a ventilator,” Ferrante said. She is concerned many Covid-19 patients, particularly those who are older and frail, will have trouble with physical function.
We won’t fully know the consequences for years
Gates said it will take months to years to fully understand the impact long-term health effects of Covid-19.
Researchers will need to follow patients over time, and look for changes and in their hearts and lungs and other key organs, to see if the damage is long-lasting or if the body is able to make a swift recovery.
“I like to tell my patients recovering from other infections, even when you’re discharged and you’re feeling better, your body is still healing,” Gates said. “Healing and recovery take time.”