How to protect your lungs post-Covid
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The long-term effects of Covid-19 on the body are not entirely understood.
Covid-19 is a new disease therefore scientists are unsure what its effects will be months or years after the initial illness.
Some people may have only minor respiratory symptoms, while others develop non-life-threatening pneumonia . But there’s a subset of people who develop severe lung damage.
“What we’re frequently seeing in patients who are severely ill with Covid-19 is a condition that we call acute respiratory distress syndrome, or Ards,” said Dr Laura Evans, a member of the Society of Critical Care Medicine Leadership Council and an associate professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
According to a 2020 study on the long-term respiratory complications of Covid-19, around 30% of people who recovered from severe Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) had long-term lung abnormalities. A 2009 study found that 40% of people who survived Sars experienced chronic fatigue about 3.5 years later, on average.
These cause damage to the lungs, which leads to fluid leaking from small blood vessels in the lungs. The fluid collects in the lungs’ air sacs, or alveoli. This makes it difficult for the lungs to transfer oxygen from the air to the blood.
While there’s a shortage of information on the type of damage that occurs in the lungs during Covid-19 and after Covid, a recent report suggests it’s similar to the damage caused by Sars and Mers.
When the symptoms are prolonged, together they are referred to the issue as “long Covid” or the people who have it as “long-haulers”.
Justine Lacy, the clinical executive at Profmed Medical Scheme, says Covid-19 inflicts most of its damage on the respiratory system, which can have a wide range of secondary effects.
“The severity of the damage inflicted mostly depends on age and co-morbidities. Chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac problems or underlying lung disease are very likely to lead to increased lung damage.”
Lacy says individuals with suppressed immune systems due to medication, auto-immune disease or cancer, are also at higher risk of long-lasting impairment.
“The greater your disease risk, the more likely you are to contract a severe form of Covid-19. In severe cases, inflammation and fluid in the lungs can cause fibrosis, tissue scarring and subsequent harm. However, if the necessary steps are taken, it is possible to repair some of this damage over time.”
Lung exercises are crucial for people who are in recovery.
“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of proper breathing. Whether you have a history of Covid-19 or not, proper breathing keeps your lungs strong and healthy and aids in recovery.”
Lacy says the most efficient way to breathe starts in the nose and then moves to the stomach as the diaphragm contracts, causing the belly to expand and your lungs to fill with air. This is called abdominal breathing and facilitates full expansion of the lungs.
“We would advise people to carry out this exercise twice a day for at least five minutes, preferably while lying down.
“It is best to let your health-care practitioner advise you on the best course of action based on your history. If you were on a ventilator for a short period of time, you do not necessarily need your lung function assessed. Extended time on a ventilator may result in greater impairment to the lungs and you could benefit from a consultation with a lung specialist who would be able to advise you on the best way forward.”
She says people suffering from Covid-19 should take care when they start exercising again.
“The long-term effects of Covid-19 on the body are still not entirely understood. It is important to be mobile at regular intervals, but one should still be cautious and gradually reintroduce exercise into one’s routine during or after recovery.
“When in doubt, it is best to contact your health-care practitioner for advice. It is also important to listen to your body and not participate in anything too strenuous, too soon.”