Since the start of the pandemic, the enduring effects of COVID-19 on the human body have been well documented. Most notably, the pneumonia that often accompanies a COVID-19 infection is known to cause long-lasting damage to the lungs. This is why it is vital to pay special attention to the wellbeing of your lungs in the months following a COVID-19 infection.
Justine Lacy, Clinical Executive at Profmed Medical Scheme explains, COVID-19 inflicts most of its damage on the respiratory system, which can have a wide range of secondary effects. “The severity of the damage inflicted mostly depends on age and co-morbidities. Chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac problems or underlying lung disease are very likely to lead to increased lung damage.”
Lacy adds that individuals with suppressed immune systems due to medication, auto-immune disease or cancer, are also at higher risk of long-lasting impairment. “The greater your disease risk, the more likely you are to contract a severe form of COVID-19. In severe cases, inflammation and fluid in the lungs can cause fibrosis, tissue scarring and subsequent harm. However, if the necessary steps are taken, it is possible to repair some of this damage over time.”
She states that lung exercises are crucial for people who are in recovery. “I cannot emphasise enough, the importance of proper breathing Whether you have a history of COVID-19 or not, proper breathing keeps your lungs strong and healthy and aids in recovery.”
Lacy says the most efficient way to breathe starts in the nose and then moves to the stomach as the diaphragm contracts, causing the belly to expand and your lungs to fill with air. This is called abdominal breathing and facilitates full expansion of the lungs. “We would advise people to carry out this exercise twice a day for at least five minutes – preferably while lying down.”
Next, Lacy says that it may be necessary to consult a specialist while recovering from a severe infection. “It is best to let your healthcare practitioner advise you on the best course of action based on your history. If you were on a ventilator for a short period of time, you do not necessarily need your lung function assessed. Extended time on a ventilator may result in greater impairment to the lungs and you could benefit from a consultation with a lung specialist who would be able to advise you on the best way forward.”
Lastly, she says that people suffering from COVID-19 should take care when they start exercising again. “The long-term effects of COVID-19 on the body are still not entirely understood. It is important to be mobile at regular intervals, but one should still be cautious and gradually re-introduce exercise into one’s routine during or after recovery. When in doubt, it is best to contact your healthcare practitioner for advice. It is also important to listen to your body and not participate in anything too strenuous, too soon.”
From a medical scheme perspective, Lacy says Profmed is tracking the incidence of COVID-19 in its members, and is particularly focusing on the most common residual symptoms such as fatigue and shortness of breath. “Our priority lies with the health of all South Africans, which is why we will continue to share our findings so we can help more people recover and stay healthy,” she concludes.