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COVID-19 does even more damage to the lungs than smoking, doctor says

Published Jan 17th, 2021 9:02AM EST
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: Vadim/Adobe

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  • A trauma surgeon who has treated thousands of coronavirus patients since March warns of a terrifying symptom that can affect many COVID-19 survivors.
  • Post-COVID-19 lungs “look worse than any type of terrible smoker’s lung we’ve ever seen,” Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall tweeted.
  • In an interview, she explained that even COVID-19 survivors who had asymptomatic cases are affected, advising people to get vaccines rather than risk the long-term consequences of infection.

Beating the novel coronavirus and surviving COVID-19 isn’t the end of the story for those who are infected. The vast majority of people will eliminate the threat, but a significant percentage of them will continue to experience symptoms for weeks or even months after the initial infection. These can be symptoms similar to what happens during the infection, including shortness of breath and fatigue, or unusual signs that might not be immediately linked to COVID-19.

Even if symptoms are absent after the infection is cleared, the lungs might take a longer time to heal. A trauma surgeon from Texas highlighted this particular aspect of the illness on Twitter and TV. “Post-COVID lungs look worse than any type of terrible smoker’s lung we’ve ever seen. And they collapse. And they clot off. And the shortness of breath lingers on… & on… & on,” Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall tweeted.

“Everyone’s just so worried about the mortality thing, and that’s terrible, and it’s awful,” the doctor told CBS News. “But man, for all the survivors and the people who have tested positive, this is — it’s going to be a problem.” The following image offers a comparison between healthy lungs, the lungs of smokers, and post-COVID-19 lungs.

Comparison shows the differences between X-rays of normal lung, smoker’s lung, and post-COVID lung. Image source: CBS News

A normal lung will appear black on X-rays, as the scan would not pick anything in the regions filled with air. White lines start to appear in a smoker’s lung, indicative of scarring and congestion. The post-COVID lung has even more scarring in it, so it appears to be even whiter than a smoker’s lung.

Bankhead-Kendall explained that she has treated thousands of patients since March 2020 and that patients who have had COVID-19 show a severe chest X-ray every time. Those who had an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 show a severe X-ray 70% to 80% of the time.

“There are still people who say ‘I’m fine. I don’t have any issues,’ and you pull up their chest X-ray, and they absolutely have a bad chest X-ray,” she said.

“You’ll either see a lot of that white, dense scarring, or you’ll see it throughout the entire lung,” the doctor explained. Even if you’re not feeling problems now, the fact that that’s on your chest X-ray — it sure is indicative of you possibly having problems later on.”

Bankhead-Kendall also said that people experiencing shortness of breath after COVID-19 should keep in touch with their doctors. She also advocated for coronavirus vaccination to prevent the consequences of infection. “There is no long-term implication of a vaccine that could ever be as bad as the long-term implications of COVID,” she said.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.