You may have contracted COVID-19 at least once, if not multiple times. Maybe you got a mild case. Maybe you didn’t. Whatever the case, hopefully you recovered. But are you home free? Or are there lasting complications and permanent damage you will have to contend with for a long time to come?
Dr. Galiatsatos, an expert on lung disease at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, says that the likelihood of a person surviving COVID-19 without lasting lung damage depends on three factors: the severity of their illness, how healthy they were before contracting the virus, and whether or not they received timely and excellent care.
A person who contracts a very mild case of the virus is obviously at a much lower risk of permanent lung damage than someone who contacted a severe form of the virus and had to be ventilated. A person who stays home, tries to weather the storm alone, and doesn’t seek medical treatment early on or when their symptoms get more serious is at higher risk of lasting lung damage. The same goes for someone who suffers from ongoing health concerns or conditions such as diabetes and obesity.
Permanent damage or not?
What exactly are we referring to when we say permanent lung damage? Some people react to the virus with a “cytokine storm.” This is when the body’s immune system goes into hyperdrive. Instead of sending immune cells to the affected part of the body to attack the virus, in some patients the body releases too many cytokines. This starts a chain reaction, whereby more immune cells are then activated, resulting in hyperinflammation. This is very dangerous and can even lead to death.
The cytokine storm and increased blood clotting lead to lung damage in the following way: the body replaces damaged cells with scar tissue, which can result in “pulmonary fibrosis.” This means that the lungs are scarred and will not work as well. People suffering from fibrosis may have to get used to living with breathlessness.
But scarring is not the only worry. People who recover from a severe case of COVID-19 can develop tiny clots in their lungs. Although the body fights back by causing new blood vessels to grow, high blood pressure in their lungs is often the result.
Uncertain future ahead
What happens if you contract a more mild case of COVID-19 and don’t need to be ventilated? Are your lungs in tip top shape after you recover? Not necessarily. In fact, Dr. James Chalmers, a Scottish chest physician, says that he has some patients who have long-term complications, despite not having been ventilated.
Kelly Fan, MD