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Researchers are learning about long-haul COVID-19 cases. Mario Tama / Getty Images
  • New research finds that severe lung damage may explain the rise of “long-haul” COVID-19.
  • Researchers looked at lung tissue from people who died from COVID-19.
  • Other experts say more research is needed.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

“Long COVID” describes the long-term symptoms people may experience after recovering from COVID-19.

According to the University of California, Davis, symptoms include fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, and “brain fog.”

Now new research published in The Lancet’s eBioMedicine journal last week looked at the organs of people who died from COVID-19 and found that severe lung damage may explain the symptoms some COVID-19 survivors experience — sometimes for months.

“It [COVID-19] seems to impact the lungs as do other respiratory viral pathogens by inflaming tissues, thus thickening them or triggering fluid accumulation within the air sacs,” Dr. Charles Bailey, medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital and Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, told Healthline. “Either of these changes can impair the normal function of the lungs.”

“There have been very few postmortem studies during the first pandemic period,” said study co-author Dr. Mauro Giacca, professor of cardiovascular sciences at King’s College London.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Trieste in Italy and King’s College London, the study looked at the lungs of 41 people who died from COVID-19 between February and April.

The researchers found that all the lungs showed extensive lung damage, while 36 of those also had massive abnormal blood clotting in lung arteries and veins.

Giacca explained that COVID-19 is a “unique disease” in terms of its symptoms, and that he conducted this research because “it was important to understand whether the virus was really present in these organs.”

What Giacca and team found was “persistent and extensive” lung damage in most cases, which could help doctors better understand what causes long-haul COVID-19.

The average age of the male study participants was 77. For female participants, it was 84. They died with underlying illness, which included high blood pressure, chronic heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

“I remember that when the pathologist (Dr. Rossana Bussani, professor and first author of the study) first looked at the samples,” Giacca said, “[and] immediately commented that she had never seen such pathological pictures before.”

He emphasized that Bussani has more than 25 years of experience and sees more than 100 cases of people who died from other forms of pneumonia every year.

Giacca said among the surprising findings was the amount of blood clots in the lungs and signs of the virus being present even 30 to 40 days after initial infection.

According to Giacca, the researchers also found “the presence of abnormal cells with several nuclei.”

“We suspect these cells might play a role in the severity of the disease,” Giacca said. He confirmed they found “no overt sign of viral infection in other organs except the lung.”

These cells are the product of the activity of a protein on the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, sometimes called the spike protein, which causes cells to merge.

He concluded that such extensive, virus-caused damage in the lungs “might not permit lung regeneration,” and this could explain the respiratory problems seen in long-haul COVID-19.

According to a London College press release, Giacca and team are now testing the effects of these abnormal cells on blood clotting and inflammation, as well as researching new medications that can block the viral spike protein, which causes lung cells to fuse.

“The new study on abnormal lung cells is really not very helpful,” said Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, a board certified internist, author, and director of the Practitioners Alliance Network.

“Basically, it [the study] is simply showing that in people who died from shock lung, ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome, the major cause of death in COVID), they are finding the kind of complex debris normally expected to be found in ARDS,” he said.

According to Teitelbaum, the findings add little at this time for those who survive COVID-19.

He said what’s more important for people experiencing respiratory symptoms “would be treatment to decrease both inflammation and oxidative stress as well as the multiple small blood clots.”

Teitelbaum emphasized that while more research is needed, giving N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), glutathione, CuraMed (a curcumin supplement), and omega-3 supplementation are “key ways to help the lungs to heal.”

He also advised using a pulse oximeter to confirm that any shortness of breath is coming from lung problems, because “it often may not be, as post-viral CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) can cause a sense of breathlessness with normal oxygen levels.”

Bailey added that earlier treatment at the first sign of respiratory compromise with medications such as remdesivir or steroids might “decrease the likelihood of this syndrome.”

Once it’s better understood, there may be “other opportunities for treatment at later stages as well, but these will probably not involve antiviral agents,” Bailey said.

A new study found that people who died from COVID-19 experienced massive lung damage, and no virus was present in organs other than the lungs.

Researchers think this might explain the phenomenon of “long COVID,” when COVID-19 survivors experience respiratory and other symptoms for weeks to months after infection.

Some experts disagree with the findings, but say using certain dietary supplements and antiviral drugs, like remdesivir or steroids, might reduce the likelihood of experiencing long lasting symptoms.