Post-COVID lungs worse than the worst smokers’ lungs, surgeon says

They collapse, they clot off and the shortness of breath lingers

A Texas trauma surgeon says it’s rare that X-rays from any of her COVID-19 patients come back without dense scarring. Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall tweeted, “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.”

“Everyone’s just so worried about the mortality thing and that’s terrible and it’s awful,” she told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “But man, for all the survivors and the people who have tested positive this is — it’s going to be a problem.

Bankhead-Kendall, an assistant professor of surgery with Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, has treated thousands of patients since the pandemic began in March.

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Lubbock, Texas trauma surgeon Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall.CBS DALLAS

She says patients who’ve had COVID-19 symptoms show a severe chest X-ray every time, and those who were asymptomatic show a severe chest 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.

In X-ray photos of a normal lung, a smoker’s lung and a COVID-19 lung that Bankhead-Kendall shared with CBS Dallas, the healthy lungs are clean with a lot of black, which is mainly air. In the smoker’s lung, white lines are indicative of scarring and congestion, while the COVID lung is filled with white.

“You’ll either see a lot of that white, dense scarring or you’ll see it throughout the entire lung. 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,” she said.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBSN that some patients with severe COVID-19 could feel the impact for years to come.

“When someone recovers from pneumonia, whether it’s a bacterial pneumonia or a viral pneumonia, it’s going to take some time for their chest X-rays to improve. Chest X-rays lag your clinical improvement. So you may be better, but your chest X-ray still looks bad,” he said. “And we know that people with COVID-19 can get severe pneumonia, and some of that pneumonia will lead to damage to the lungs that will take time to heal. And some of it may be permanent.”

He said the potential long-term health consequences are another reason people should take warnings about the disease seriously. 

“It’s not something you can blow off. This isn’t something you want to have. Because even if you survive, you still may be left with some severe complications that make it very hard for you to go back to your baseline functioning.”

Bankhead-Kendall said it’s important that if you’re experiencing shortness of breath after your COVID-19 goes away, you stay in touch with your primary care doctor.

She also points out, “There is no long-term implication of a vaccine that could ever be as bad as the long-term implications of COVID.”

banner image via Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall