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COVID Pneumonia: How Long Does Recovery Take?

July 6, 2021 - Katie McCallum

You're likely familiar with the common, mild symptoms of COVID-19 — including fever, dry cough and fatigue.

But, in more severe cases, COVID-19 can also cause serious complications, including pneumonia.

"We still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, particularly about the havoc it can wreak on the lungs and the pneumonia it causes, which is often now called COVID pneumonia," says Dr. Rayman Lee, pulmonologist at Houston Methodist.

That being said, there's still plenty that experts like Dr. Lee do know about COVID pneumonia, including about how long it can take to fully recover from it.

What is COVID pneumonia?

Dr. Lee: Pneumonia occurs when a bacterial or viral infection causes significant damage and inflammation in the lungs. The resulting fluid and debris build-up makes it hard for a person to breathe — sometimes to such an extent that oxygen therapy or ventilator support is required. Regardless of the bacteria or virus causing it, pneumonia can become very serious, even life-threatening.

In the case of COVID pneumonia, the damage to the lungs is caused by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

When COVID pneumonia develops, it causes additional symptoms, such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Low blood pressure

What's more is that COVID pneumonia often occurs in both lungs, rather than just one lung or the other. Additionally, the widespread inflammation that occurs in some people with COVID-19 can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) — a severe type of lung failure.

Like other respiratory infections that cause pneumonia, COVID-19 can cause short-term lung damage. In more severe cases, the damage can last a long time. In fact, early data is showing that up to a third of COVID pneumonia patients have evidence of scarring on X-rays or lung testing a year after the infection.

What is the recovery time for COVID pneumonia?

Dr. Lee: Regardless of what causes it, regaining strength after pneumonia can take quite a long time — from several weeks to many months.

During COVID pneumonia recovery, your body first has to repair the damage caused to the lungs; then it has to deal with clearing leftover fluid and debris and, finally, scarring until the tissue is fully healed over — all of which come with unpleasant symptoms.

For the 15% of infected individuals who develop moderate to severe COVID-19 and are admitted to the hospital for a few days and require oxygen, the average recovery time ranges between three to six weeks.

For the 5% who develop severe or critical illness, recovery can take much longer.

Everyone's recovery is unique and depends on:

  • Your overall health
  • Whether you have preexisting conditions
  • The severity of your infection

If you are recovering from COVID pneumonia and experiencing persistent problems, I recommend seeing your doctor for a follow-up evaluation. If your recovery is prolonged, he or she may recommend a specialized program, such as pulmonary rehabilitation, to help get you back on track.

In some cases, patients will have lingering symptoms after the initial COVID-19 infection, often called post-COVID syndrome. These "long haulers" can have variety of problems, since the virus can attack not only the lungs, but also the heart, kidneys and brain. Your doctor can also help you manage these lingering symptoms.

 

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