People who have driven a long COVID-19 and been hospitalised are more likely to have damage to major organs subsequently, according to a new study.
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MRI scans revealed that these patients were three times more likely to have some abnormalities in multiple organs such as the lungs, brain, and kidneys.
Researchers believe this has a link to the severity of the disease, and hope the UK study will help develop more effective treatments for the long COVID-19.
The study, published in The Lancet Respirators Medsin, looked at 259 patients who contracted the virus to such an extent that they were admitted to hospital.
Five months after they were discharged, MRI scans of their major organs showed some significant differences compared to a group of 52 people who had never had COVID-19.
The greatest impact was seen on the lungs, where scans were 14 times more likely to show abnormalities.
People who have undergone severe treatment for COVID-19 are three times more likely to show some abnormalities in the brain and twice as likely in the kidneys. There was no significant difference in the condition of the heart or liver.
Dr Betty Raman of Oxford University and one of the lead researchers in the study says it's clear that people who live with lingering symptoms of COVID-19 are more likely to have had some organ damage.
"The age of the patient, how severely he or she was ill with COVID-19, as well as whether he had other illnesses at the same time, are significant factors in whether we will find damage to these important organs in the body or not," she says.
The findings are part of a larger study looking at the long-term effects of COVID-19 on those who have been hospitalized, known as the Phosp-COVID-19 study.
Researchers have found that some symptoms coincide with the signs of organ damage revealed in the scan for example, chest tightness and coughing with abnormalities in the lungs. However, not all symptoms experienced by people living with long COVID-19 can be directly related to what is seen on the scan.
Dr. Raman also said abnormalities in more than one organ appear to have been more common among people who were admitted to hospital and continued to report problems with their physical and mental health after recovering from the initial infection.
"What we see is that people with multi-organ MRI pathology — that is, they had more than two affected organs — were four times more likely to report severe and very severe mental and physical impairments," she says, adding: "Our findings also highlight the need for longer-term multidisciplinary follow-up services targeting lung and extrapulmonary health (kidney, mental health), especially for those hospitalised for COVID-19'.
Prof. Dr Kris Brightling, from the University of Leicester, who led the Phosp-COVID study, says the research is part of a broader effort to understand the group of different symptoms that make up the syndrome known as "long COVID-19".
"This detailed study of whole-body imaging confirms that changes in multiple organs occur months after hospitalization for COVID-19," he says, adding: "The Phosp COVID study is working to understand the reasons why this is happening and how we can develop tests and new treatments for the long COVID-19.
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