Newswise — LOS ANGELES (June 26, 2020) -- For many patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, surviving the virus is only half of the battle. Once deemed virus-free and ready to be sent home, the often-long road to recovery – including rebuilding lung capacity and overall respiratory health – begins.
Two Cedars-Sinai respiratory therapists explain what roadblocks these hospital-admitted patients face when it comes to lung health and offer tips for non-patients looking to improve their overall respiratory health.
"Patients with COVID-19 tend to be sicker for much longer than other patients with respiratory-related illnesses and, on average, stay on a ventilator for a longer duration," said Dagoberto Naranjo, RRT, a respiratory therapist in the Department of Respiratory Therapy at Cedars-Sinai.
These ventilated patients also take longer to react, or benefit from, oxygenation efforts, according to Naranjo.
"When patients are intubated for long periods, it's usually because they have accompanying or underlying medical conditions," said Naranjo. "Patients who are healthy usually are intubated only to get them over the hump of requiring high levels of oxygen. This virus has proved to be unique, requiring different techniques and treatments than traditional standards of care."
Because of the high levels of oxygen these patients require, coupled with the length of time they rely on ventilation, the road to a full recovery after leaving the hospital can be long for some patients.
"Although most patients recover without long-term effects, some patients experience persistent symptoms after discharge," said Christina Rogers, RRT, also a respiratory therapist in the Department of Respiratory Therapy. "These symptoms include difficulty breathing, fatiguing easily and experiencing weakness due to their limited ability to participate in regular physical activity."
To combat these symptoms, Rogers and Naranjo suggest patients be sent home with an incentive spirometer device, which measures how deeply an individual can breathe in, and helps encourage taking slow, deep breaths to increase lung capacity.
"This tool can also help prevent secondary lung problems, such as pneumonia," said Rogers.
The therapists also recommend that patients focus on nutrition to increase energy levels, and if deemed appropriate by a physician, incorporate mild exercise, such as walks, into their daily routines.
For healthy people without COVID-19, Rogers and Naranjo say it's never a bad idea to increase overall lung capacity and improve overall respiratory health.
"Don't underestimate the practice of simple deep breathing," said Rogers. "Most people only use a small part of their lung capacity. By increasing the length of your inhalations and exhalations, you can increase your lung capacity and strengthen your breathing, which improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, ultimately improving lung capacity."
Cardio workouts are also recommended to improve respiratory health.
"To improve lung capacity, cardio workouts, like speed-walking, jump rope, stationary bike-riding or running can make a big impact," said Naranjo. "However, every patient – including healthy individuals without COVID-19 – should consult a doctor to ensure their physical limitations aren't pushed to the extreme."