Those who recover from the most severe cases of the coronavirus may be left with serious lung damage, according to the UK's professional body for intensive-care doctors and practitioners.
The Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine (FICM) warned many who contract serious cases of COVID-19 will develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), The Sunday Times reported.
Two preliminary studies, conducted of 41 and 99 people respectively, have found that between 17% and 29% of coronavirus patients who enter intensive care go on to contract ARDS.
The numbers are small, and it is difficult to draw broader conclusions as scientists continue to research COVID-19.
ARDS prevents a person's lungs from providing their vital organs with enough oxygen, according to the National Health Service.
It may take up to 15 years for those infected with COVID-19, and then stricken with ARDS, to regain lung function, the FICM said.
Some people who recover from serious cases of the coronavirus will be left with lung damage that may take as many as 15 years to heal, according to intensive-care experts in the UK.
The warning from the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine (FICM), the UK's professional body for intensive care doctors and practitioners, was published in The Sunday Times.
The FICM highlighted that many admitted to intensive care with COVID-19 have developed a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
One study published in the US National Center for Biotechnology Information found that 17% of 99 coronavirus patients in Wuhan, China, examined between January 1 and January 20, had developed ARDS during their illness.
Another study published in The Lancet on February 15 found that 29% of 41 patients observed between mid-December to early January in Wuhan had developed ARDS.
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ARDS prevents a person's lungs from providing their vital organs with enough oxygen, according to the National Health Service (NHS).
When COVID-19 reaches the lungs, their mucous membranes — which line the various body cavities and air tracts — become inflamed. According to the NHS, this inflammation can then cause ARDS, whereby "fluid from nearby blood vessels to leak into the tiny air sacs in your lungs, making breathing increasingly difficult."
Though the lungs of coronavirus survivors could return to "apparently normal" after six months with minimal issues — like a weakened ability to exercise — those who go on to develop ARDS could "take as long as 15 years for their lungs to recover," the FICM said, according to The Sunday Times.
ARDS is responsible for 10% of all intensive care unit admissions in the UK, The Sunday Times said.
ARDS also has a mortality rate of 30% to 40%, the newspaper added, citing Michael Matthay, an expert on the disease. This fatality rate was also mentioned in a 2015 paper on the disease published in the US National Center for Biotechnology Information.
"There is no specific treatment except to sedate patients and put them on mechanical ventilators to let them recover," Matthay said, referring to ARDS sufferers.
"Survivors have significant exercise limitation and poor physical quality of life ... related to marked muscle wasting and weakness."
ARDS is also commonly found in people recovering from severe flu and pneumonia cases in the UK, but in those cases "it's unusual for ARDS to cause long-term lung damage," according to the British Lung Foundation.
A study published March 13 in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that older people with COVID-19 are the most likely group to contract ARDS, "likely owing to less rigorous immune response."
The FICM also warned that other organs could also be damaged by COVID-19 after recovery.
"Like many other viral conditions, the effects of coronavirus are not just limited to the lungs. The heart can also be affected, ranging from inflammation (myocarditis) to heart failure," the FICM said, according to The Sunday Times.
Earlier this month the Hong Kong Hospital Authority also found that two to three people out of a group of 12 recovered coronavirus patients were left with a drop in 20% to 30% in lung function. The authority added, however, that they could do cardiovascular exercises to slowly improve their lung capacity over time.
As of Tuesday, more than 185,000 people have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 7,300 have died.
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