NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Even though tens of millions of Americans have been infected with the coronavirus, most will recover with seemingly little after-effects, but now there's gathering evidence that even asymptomatic cases can can damage a person's lungs even worse than smoking.
Trauma surgeon Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall wants everyone to know that post-COVID lungs look worse than any type of terrible smoker's lung she's ever seen.
"Everyone's just so worried about the mortality thing and that's terrible and it's awful. But man, all the survivors and the people who have tested positive, this is, it's going to be a problem," she told CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez.
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Of the thousands of COVID patients she's treated, every one with COVID symptoms has an abnormal chest x-ray. Even three out of four who were asymptomatic had a bad chest x-ray.
On a healthy lung x-ray, black areas show normal air spaces. An x-ray of a smoker's lungs is filled with white scarring and congestion.
Bankhead-Kendall says on a COVID lung, "you'll either see a lot of that white, dense scarring or you'll see it throughout the entire lung. Even if you're not feeling problems now, the fact that that's on your chest x-ray, it sure is indicative of you possibly having problems later on."
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Dr. William Li and colleagues took it even further in the New England Journal of Medicine by scanning electron microscope images of a normal lung and the broken down, oxygen-absorbing alveoli in the COVID lung.
It's not yet clear the impact this lung damage will have on COVID patients long term or whether the injury will even heal. What is clear is that mask-wearing and a vaccine are a better alternative than even a mild case of COVID.
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