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We’ve written a lot about how COVID-19 can kick the immune system into overdrive. This leads to increased inflammation throughout the body, which can cause damage to the heart, blood vessels and brain.
Inflammation is also believed to be a factor in “long COVID,” a condition that can persist months or even years after COVID-19 infection. Long COVID is accompanied by a wide range of debilitating symptoms, including extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog or memory problems, sleep difficulties, heart palpitations, thyroid inflammation and joint and muscle pain.
Now, researchers are seeing that inflammation related to COVID-19 may be responsible for another health issue that can linger long after the infection has passed….
Post-COVID breathing may be more difficult
Austrian investigators have found a strong link between prolonged inflammation following COVID-19 and long-term changes in lung structure and function. The results suggest monitoring COVID-19 patients for signs of inflammation could help identify who is most at risk of long-term lung problems and help optimize their follow-up care.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus primarily attacks the lungs, causing damage that can lead to long-term breathing problems. It can also lead to life-threatening pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, both of which can also impair lung function over the long term.
The vast majority of COVID-19 patients experience a mild form of the disease, but a significant number report lingering or recurring symptoms, and full recovery can take several months to years.
“Symptoms lasting beyond 12 weeks are found in as many as 10% of COVID-19 patients, and robust, resource-saving tools assessing people’s individual risk of lung complications are urgently needed,” says Thomas Sonnweber, a lung specialist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria, and co-first author of the study.
The researchers analyzed the frequency of lung structure and function changes and persistent symptoms in patients six months after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Then, they used the data to determine if there are clinical markers that can predict those patients’ risk of developing long COVID.
Almost half the patients had lingering symptoms six months after diagnosis. The most common complaint was impaired physical performance, reported by 35 percent of patients. Another 27 percent reported sleep disorders, and 23 percent said they experienced breathlessness when they exerted themselves.
Six months after diagnosis, about a third of the patients had impaired lung function. And chest scans of almost half the patients showed structural lung abnormalities, with moderate-to-severe alterations occurring in one in five of those patients.
Other factors could be involved in lung issues
The team found that some risk factors linked to severe and critical COVID-19 infection were also linked to long-term symptom persistence. These factors include being male, having chronic conditions like high blood pressure, and having high anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels.
In addition, long-term lung abnormalities were linked with elevated markers of inflammation both within blood vessels and throughout the body.
The researchers then analyzed whether accounting for these risk factors could predict COVID-19 outcomes in a different group of patients. Although the inflammation markers predicted who would develop abnormal lung structure, they couldn’t accurately predict who would develop problems with lung function or symptoms such as breathlessness.
Those results suggest even if patients have detectable lung changes 60 days after COVID-19 diagnosis, they may not appear as symptoms or changes in lung function at that point but could still lead to later problems.
The researchers caution the algorithms they used in the study need to be validated in larger groups of COVID-19 patients before they can be reliably used to predict long-term outcomes.
Can this inflammation be managed?
So is there anything we can do to help reduce COVID-related inflammation?
As we’ve noted before, some studies have suggested the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids could benefit COVID-19 patients. And separate research has indicated a metabolite of vitamin D may help bring down dangerous levels of inflammation experienced by patients with severe COVID-19.
Based on these results, it may not be a bad idea to add omega-3 and vitamin D supplements to your daily regimen. Look for the D3 form of vitamin D, as it’s the one most easily absorbed by your body. And choose an omega-3 supplement that’s fresh and free of toxins and additives. The body also best absorbs both of these supplements when they’re taken with a meal that contains healthy fats from foods like avocado and olive oil.
If you’ve managed to avoid getting COVID-19 so far, it’s still wise to keep excess inflammation at bay to support your overall health. In addition to the aforementioned anti-inflammatory supplements, try following an anti-inflammatory diet loaded with organic produce and meats, lean protein, lots of vegetables, some brightly colored fruits, healthy fats, raw nuts and seeds. Avoid sugary foods and trans fats, both of which are found in abundance in processed foods.
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COVID-19 Lung Damage — Johns Hopkins Medicine