The claim: COVID-19 infection can leave worse lung damage than smoking
New COVID-19 cases may be on the decline – down 21% in the past two weeks, The New York Times reports – but the effects of the viral contagion are far from over, one Instagram post claims.
“COVID-19 can cause worse lung damage than heavy smoking,” states the Jan. 21 post shared by The Unbiased Science Podcast. The post includes an image of three lung X-rays that each depict a white cloudiness worsening as it goes from a normal to smoker’s to a COVID-19 infected lung.
That the novel coronavirus can cause lung damage is nothing new. The post claims a radiological finding called ground-glass opacities are typically found on chest X-rays of COVID-19 patients and that 50%-80% of these patients are reported to have lung damage. What is concerning is the “extent of these sequelae (aftereffects of a disease) and how long they may persist” since “clinicians have reported this type of lung scarring is present” long after COVID-19 infection, The Unbiased Science Podcast states.
COVID-19 can cause significant lung damage
The chest X-rays shared by The Unbiased Science Podcast were captured by Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall, assistant professor of surgery at Texas Tech University, who observed this phenomena among her own patients.
“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but ‘post-COVID’ lungs look worse than ANY type of terrible smoker’s lung we’ve ever seen,” she tweeted on Jan. 4.
A chest X-ray of a healthy individual looks like the negative of a black-and-white photo with the lungs appearing dark and shadowed because of the air inside and the surrounding bones, organs and muscles colored white. Anything that occupies the lung’s airspace – whether it be fluid, masses, tissue scarring or other artifacts – casts a white haze, depending on density.
Speaking to CBS Dallas-Fort Worth, Bankhead-Kendall compared a chest X-ray of a smoker’s lung, littered with white lines indicative of scarring and congestion, to that of a COVID-19 infected lung with the same scarring but more of it throughout the entire lung.
Chest X-rays of asymptomatic patients – those infected but without symptoms – exhibited a severe chest X-ray 70%-80% of the time, but those with COVID-19 symptoms had one every time, she also added.
Lungs and the COVID-19 long haul
Bankhead-Kendall’s finding is among many amplifying the growing concern of COVID-19 survivors suffering from lingering illness – dubbed “long haulers” – ranging from chronic fatigue, kidney damage, cardiovascular, psychiatric or neurological and other issues.
As the Instagram post suggests, lung damage has been observed with COVID-19, especially since it begins as a respiratory infection. A July 2020 study published in the Lancet found that over 60% of the 55 recovered noncritical patients examined had persistent respiratory issues three months after their hospital discharge, over 70% had abnormal findings on lung CT scans and slightly over 25% had reductions in lung function, particularly in the ability to transfer gases from inhaled air to red blood cells, called diffusing capacity of the lungs for carbon monoxide, or DLCO.
Ground-glass opacities, a term used to describe a cloudiness that shows up on imaging that is not dense enough to obscure surrounding or underlying tissue, have been detected in the lungs of COVID-19 patients although they are not specific to the disease.
Dr. Jennifer Possick, a pulmonologist at Yale Medicine, told Health last April that ground-glass opacities can be found in many different conditions like lung cancer, congestive heart failure, inflammatory lung diseases and, commonly, viral pneumonias. They are thus not a sole diagnostic marker for COVID-19.
While there is a risk COVID-19 can inflict permanent, long-term lung damage, particularly among people with preexisting lung conditions, there is hope for reversal. A September report from the European Respiratory Journal found coronavirus-induced lung inflammation and fluid buildup appeared to improve steadily over 12 weeks, hinting at an innate repair mechanism within the lungs. The finding is promising but will require further research given the small size of the study with only 82 patients, mostly male and average age over 50.
Our rating: True
We rate the claim COVID-19 can cause worse lung damage than smoking TRUE as it is supported by our research. The finding was reported by Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall of Texas Tech University and is among the growing body of evidence pointing to long-term systemic effects following COVID-19 infection, also known as long-haul COVID-19.
Our fact-check sources:
- The New York Times, Jan. 22, “U.S. Coronavirus Cases Are Falling, but Variants Could Erase Progress”
- Brittany Bankhead-Kendall MD, Jan. 4, Twitter thread
- eMedicine Health, Oct. 9, 2020, “Chest X-Ray Reasons for Procedure, Normal and Abnormal Results”
- CBSN Dallas-Fort Worth, Jan. 13, “Texas Trauma Surgeon Says ‘Post-COVID Lungs Look Worse Than Any Type Of Terrible Smokers Lung We’ve Ever Seen‘”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine, May 14, 2020, “Coronavirus: Kidney Damage Caused by COVID-19“
- Mayo Clinic, Nov. 17, 2020, “COVID-19 (coronavirus): Long-term effects“
- BMC Pulmonary Medicine, Sept. 15, 2020, “Chest x-ray findings and temporal lung changes in patients with COVID-19 pneumonia”
- EClinicalMedicine, July 14, 2020, “Follow-up study of the pulmonary function and related physiological characteristics of COVID-19 survivors three months after recovery“
- UpToDate, Aug. 30, 2019, “Diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide”
- Health, April 16, 2020, “What Do ‘Ground Glass Opacities’ Mean in Lung Scans of COVID-19 Patients?”
- Respiratory Research, June 29, 2020, “Impact of coronavirus disease 2019 on pulmonary function in early convalescence phase”
- UC Health, Nov. 8, 2020, “Short- and Long-Term Lung Damage from COVID-19“
- European Respiratory Journal, Oct. 28, 2020, “Late Breaking Abstract – Persisting pulmonary impairment following severe SARS-CoV-2 infection, preliminary results from the CovILD study”
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.