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Even mild Covid-19 can be dangerous for lungs as six divers suffer 'irreversible damage' despite recovery

Until now, lasting lung damage was only seen in patients surviving a severe form of Covid-19
UPDATED MAY 13, 2020
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A brush with the new coronavirus disease left six healthy Austrian divers with permanently damaged lungs, costing them the ability to dive, according to doctors. But something else stood out — the six divers only had mild disease. Until now, experts have only seen lasting lung damage in patients surviving a severe form of Covid-19.

The six patients have since recovered but "the damage to the lungs is irreversible", Frank Hartig, senior physician at the Innsbruck University Clinic, said in an interview with the APA. "This is shocking, we don't understand what's going on here. They are probably lifelong patients, so it doesn't matter whether they dive again or not," said the doctor. 

The lung images or CT scan images helped doctors see the virus's assault on the lungs. The damage did not get any better with time. "As an emergency doctor with 20 years of experience, you swallow when you see something like this in a 40-year-old patient," he added.

Looking at the damage, Hartig said, it is difficult to believe in complete healing. He also added that divers, who were once struck by Covid-19, should not practice their sport without consulting their doctors.

“After a Covid infection, even if you have only mild symptoms, you should have a dive doctor examine you thoroughly, even if you still have an upright medical examination," Hartig warned divers in a report.

What do we know about lasting lung-damage?

The coronavirus disease triggers a complication in the lungs called acute respiratory distress syndrome. This condition is the result of excess clogging of the lungs with fluid, which prevents patients from breathing. These patients are more likely to suffer from lasting damage to the lungs, according to experts.

Some patients are more likely to suffer from long-term lung damage (Getty Images)

"Patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), seen often in severe Covid-19 illness, sometimes develop permanent lung damage or fibrosis as well," Dr Andrew Martin, chair, pulmonary medicine at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, New Jersey, told Healthline.

But some are more at risk of long-term damage than others. According to Dr Gary Weinstein, pulmonologist/critical care medicine specialist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, people over 65 have a heightened risk. Additionally, those with compromised immune systems and morbid obesity or diabetes might be prone to such lung damages, he told Healthline.

A small study from Hong Kong found that two or three of the 12 recovered patients had reduced lung function. "In some patients, lung function could decline by about 20 to 30% after recovery," says Dr Owen Tsang Tak-yin, medical director of the Infectious Diseases Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong.

Experts suspect that this assault could lead to irreversible lung damage: scarring. This condition could reduce oxygen in the blood, leading to shortness of breath.

What is more, doctors suspect that patients with lung failure could also see long-term damage to other organs such as kidneys, heart and the brain. It could also lead to impaired mobility. Increased bed rest could lower muscle strength over the following months and years, a study found.