A year-long lung health study suggests that recovered COVID-19 pneumonia patients could benefit from tailored clinical follow-up, an exercise program, and treatment to prevent chronic disease, the authors say.

Most patients discharged from the hospital after a bout with severe COVID-19 infection appear to return to full health, but up to a third show evidence of lung changes or related problems a year later, reported study co-lead Mark Jones, M.D., of University of Southampton, in England, and NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Center.

He and his colleagues followed 83 patients throughout the year following their hospital discharge. Most had an improvement in symptoms, including exercise capacity and computerized tomography, or CT, scan readings. 

But at 12 months, about 5% of patients still reported breathlessness, and a third continued to have reduced lung function, the researchers said. More women than men had the latter issue, which affected the efficiency of oxygen transfer from the lungs into the blood. In addition, CT scans also showed small areas of change in the lungs in about a fourth of the patients. This finding was more common in those with the most severe lung changes at time of hospitalization.

Although the majority of the patients appeared to be fully recovered, the study results have important implications, said co-lead Yihua Wang, M.D., also of the University of Southampton and NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Center.

The research provides evidence that routine respiratory follow-up of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 pneumonia is required, he said. In addition, given the length of time it takes for some patients to recover, it suggests that research into whether exercise programs help patients recover more quickly is needed. And it also highlights the need for treatment strategies to help prevent the development of long-term COVID-19-related lung changes, Wang concluded.

The study was published in The Lancet.