COVID-19 can cause lasting lung damage – 3 ways long COVID patients’ respiration can suffer
“I just can’t do what I used to anymore.”
As pulmonologists andcritical care doctors treating patients with lung disease, we have heard many of our patients recovering from COVID-19 tell us this even months after their initial diagnosis. Though they may have survived the most life-threatening phase of their illness, they have yet to return to their pre-COVID-19 baseline, struggling with activities ranging from strenuous exercise to doing laundry.
Not all breathing problems are related to the lungs, but in many cases the lungs are affected. Looking at the lungs’ basic functions and how they can be affected by disease may help clarify what is on the horizon for some patients after a COVID-19 infection.
Normal lung function
The main function of the lungs is to bring oxygen-rich air into the body and expel carbon dioxide. When air flows into the lungs, it is brought into close proximity with the blood, where oxygen diffuses into the body and carbon dioxide diffuses out.
This process, as simple as it sounds, requires an extraordinary coordination of air flow, or ventilation, and blood flow, or perfusion. There are over 20 divisions in your airway, starting at the main windpipe, or the trachea, all the way out to the little balloons at the end of the airway, called alveoli, that are in close contact with your blood vessels.
One form of lung disease is obstruction of airflow in and out of the body.
Two common causes of impairments like these are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. In these diseases, the airways become narrowed because of either damage from smoking, as is common in COPD, or allergic inflammation, as is common in asthma. In either case, patients experience difficulty blowing air out of their lungs.