COVID-19 survivors deal with lung damage, have lungs worse than smokers’

7 mins read

Dr. Subin Jain at Baptist Health Louisville and nine other pulmonologists have been doctors at the frontlines, treating COVID-19 patients since March.

“We see the whole spectrum of the COVID infection,” Jain told WAVE 3 News.

He and his colleagues treat patients with symptoms such as cough, chills, and shortness of breath. Aside from that, they also deal with severe lung disease patients who need oxygen or are on a ventilator.  

“We’ve seen the entire gamut of the acute COVID infection and now we are starting to see some of these patients come back to our offices with the consequences having had a COVID infection,” Jain said.

Jain said that COVID-19 survivors have complained that they don’t feel 100 percent well even after a few weeks of recovery.

“When they show up in our office they are concerned about their breathing and inability to do things that they were able to do prior to a COVID infection, to a varying degree, depending on how badly the lungs have been affected,” Jain said. “They aren’t able to do the things they had been able to do such as go to the gym, take a walk with their dog, cut the grass, sometimes even push a cart through a grocery store.”

Jain stated that the long-term effects on the lungs depend on how severe their COVID-19 symptoms were. 

“The more severe the injury to their lungs, I think, the longer it takes for it to heal, and in some patients, it doesn’t heal fully or at all,” he said.

A healthy lung’s X-RAY would show no spots or fluid, that means they are clean lungs. With pneumonia, the chest X-RAY or CT scan would show fluid, dead cells, or bacteria in the lungs that can be seen related to the infection. In a patient with pneumonia, the CT scan or X-ray would have a white-ish haze over the lungs. He also said bacterial pneumonia looks like a “solid snowball” on an X-ray or scan.

“When you see patients with COVID infection, and this is by no means exclusively, but a large portion of these patients have what is called ‘ground glass’ on their lungs,” Jain said. “It almost looks like a smattering of snow dusted across the windscreen as a consequence of a snow shower that didn’t quite bury a car in snow.”

This can either affect one portion of the lung or the entirety of the organ. 

Jain disclosed that there is no solid statistic as of the moment that shows how many people suffer any consequences from COVID-19.

“I would postulate with the benefit of my experience, but without randomized study or a study to say this, but pretty much anybody who has COVID infection will show some signs of it in their lungs,” he said. “So, if I was to do a CAT scan of the lungs, I would find some signs of that COVID infection even if they didn’t have symptoms of shortness of breath or cough or wheezing.”

Younger patients without any prior issue may never have respiratory issues. Jain further said that the lungs have tremendous healing capacity. However, for older patients with lung diseases or other health issues, it is expected that the recovery period will be longer. 

Post-COVID lungs worse than a smoker’s lungs

A trauma surgeon from Texas says that it is rare that COVID-19 patients’ X-Ray shows no dense scarring. 

Dr Brittany Bankhead-Kendall tweeted, “Post-COVID lungs look worse than any type of terrible smoker’s lung we’ve ever seen. And they collapse. And they clot off. And the shortness of breath lingers on… & on… & on.”

“Everyone’s just so worried about the mortality thing and that’s terrible and it’s awful,” she told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “But man, for all the survivors and the people who have tested positive this is — it’s going to be a problem.”

Bankhead-Kendall, an assistant professor of surgery with Texas Tech University has treated countless patients since the pandemic began. 

She said COVID-19 positive always shows severe chest X-ray every time. Even 70% to 80% of asymptomatic patients show a severe chest X-ray. 

“There are still people who say ‘I’m fine. I don’t have any issues,’ and you pull up their chest X-ray and they absolutely have a bad chest X-ray,” she said.

Bankhead-Kendall shared a photo that compares the lungs of a healthy person, a smoker’s lungs, and a COVID patient. 

Healthy lungs are clean with lots of black, which is mainly air. The smoker’s lungs have white lines that indicate scarring and congestion while COVID lungs are filled with white. 

“You’ll either see a lot of that white, dense scarring or you’ll see it throughout the entire lung. Even if you’re not feeling problems now, the fact that that’s on your chest X-ray — it sure is indicative of you possibly having problems later on,” she said.

X-rays of a normal lung, a smoker’s lung and a COVID patient’s lung.