The first long-term study of COVID-19 long haulers — patients who report having side effects for weeks to months after getting the virus — suggests that lung function may improve over time, providing a rare bit of good news for a group still searching for answers.
The study, presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress (ERSIC) this week, tracked 86 COVID-19 long-haulers from late April to June in the Tyrolean region of Austria, the country’s “ground zero” for the coronavirus pandemic. The patients were evaluated six, 12 and 24 weeks after being released either from a hospital in Innsbruck, the capital city of Tyrol, or a cardiopulmonary rehabilitation center in Münster.
At the initial six-week evaluation, 88 percent of the patients showed lung damage, 47 percent reported trouble breathing and 15 percent said they were experiencing persistent coughing. Six weeks later at the 12-week mark, the number of those reporting a cough remained the same, but the number of those reporting trouble with breathing fell to 39 percent, and the number of those showing signs of lung damage dropped to 56 percent.
The study suggests “the lungs have a mechanism for repairing themselves”
On top of a decrease in lung damage, tests indicated an improvement in function, as well. At six weeks, 28 percent of patients showed FVC (or total volume of air expelled) at less than 80 percent of normal, but by 12 weeks the number of those experiencing it had dropped to 18 percent. Similarly, while 33 percent of patients at six weeks showed less than 80 percent of normal DLCO — the ability of the lungs to transfer oxygen to the blood — by 12 weeks, just 22 percent of patients were reporting abnormal numbers.
Research on the 24-week checkup is ongoing and will include an additional 64 patients who joined the study after the 12-week report. Although those results have yet to be released, in an email to Yahoo Life, the researchers confirmed that the larger cohort has shown an “overall improvement” in lung function as well.
Sabina Sahanic, a PhD student at the University Clinic in Innsbruck and author on the study, expressed optimism in a statement. “The bad news is that people show lung impairment from COVID-19 weeks after discharge,” said Sahanic. “The good news is that the impairment tends to ameliorate over time, which suggests the lungs have a mechanism for repairing themselves.”
“I consider myself 98 percent healed”
In emails with Yahoo Life, multiple COVID-19 long-haulers shared encouraging stories about their own progress. Scott Cohen, a 48-year-old in Long Island, N.Y., says he spent a month in the hospital and 10 days on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19 in late March. But after experiencing lingering symptoms for months, he now feels nearly back to normal. “I consider myself 98 percent healed including my breathing, and have just about returned to my normal pre-COVID lung function,” Cohen writes. “I believe this study has merit based on my own personal observations.”
The Austrian researchers also planned to study heart issues, but ultimately “did not find a severe cardiac impairment following COVID-19” in the sample. Still, Dawn Christensen, another COVID-19 long-hauler, says that’s another area where improvement may be possible.
“My cardiac issues are slowly improving. I [had] mitral valve prolapse before COVID, now I have an enlarged aorta that I am not certain [was] caused by COVID,” Christensen writes in an email.“However, my heart is getting better. I went from needing 150 to 200 milligrams of beta blockers to now [taking them only] as needed! That is improvement. I was not on any heart medication before COVID.”
Rehabilitation may be critical to recovery
Dr. Natalie Lambert, an associate research professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and one of the leading experts on COVID-19 long-haulers in the U.S., said the news aligns with some of the posts she’s been reading through groups like Survivor Corps. “I am finding that some people are starting to report that they’re getting better,” Lambert tells Yahoo Life. “But then there are other people [for whom] it’s lasting a long time and they are just not getting better. But it’s very hopeful to hear that some people are getting better.”
Lambert points out that an important part of the study is that the patients — unlike many in Survivor Corps — were actively receiving treatment from doctors (many long-haulers have expressed difficulty getting doctors to take them seriously). The authors confirmed to Yahoo Life that “physiotherapy was offered to all patients during hospitalization” and that approximately 15 percent of the 86 individuals were admitted to a three-week rehabilitation program after discharge.
In an accompanying study that was also presented at the ERSIC, Austrian PhD student Yara Al Chikhanie bolstered arguments in favor of treatment, providing evidence that pulmonary rehabilitation programs have drastically improved survivors’ ability to function. In her study, a group of 19 long-haulers went from being able to complete just 16 percent of what they “should be able to walk normally if healthy,” to 43 percent within just three weeks of pulmonary rehab.
“These findings suggest that doctors should start rehabilitation as soon as possible, that patients should try to spend as little time as possible being inactive...” said Al Chikhanie in a statement.
Not all long-haulers are finding improved symptoms
As Lambert has seen through individual posts on Survivor Corps and elsewhere, there are plenty of long-haulers who have been battling symptoms for 12 weeks or more and aren’t improving. Rachael Sunshine, 43, said her symptoms have worsened in recent weeks.
“My last relapse or flare was not an improvement — rather, it was worsening. I fought harder to breathe than before. The symptoms were exacerbated; I was rushed by ambulance from my home,” Sunshine wrote in an email to Yahoo Life. “After being rushed to the hospital, I was in way worse shape. I had bilateral pneumonia, respiratory acidosis, and sepsis.”
Marcus Tomoff, a 28-year-old in Tampa, Fla., says he has been dealing with lung and heart issues since contracting COVID-19 in early June. Although both issues improved for a short window in July, both are back — and debilitating. “I’m still dealing with consistent shortness of breath and shooting pains in my back, neck and legs,” said Tomoff, who has gone from wakeboarding and kayaking to not being able to walk across the room without his heart rate spiking. “I can’t ride a bike or do anything of those things without risking my health,” he says.
He’s hopeful that the new study may be a sign of hope, but says that he won’t stop talking about it either way. “It’s scary to open up about this, but at the end of the day this is reality, people need to hear this,” says Tomoff. “At my age, I shouldn’t be worrying about this.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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