The small study showed lung problems despite other tests coming back normal (Picture: Getty Images)
Experts have uncovered lung abnormalities in long Covid patients suffering from breathlessness that cannot be detected in routine tests.
Initial results from the small new study suggest gas transfer from the lungs to the bloodstream is significantly impaired.
Other tests on the patients – including CT scans – have come back as normal.
The Explain research uses xenon, an odourless, colourless, tasteless and chemically non-reactive gas, to investigate possible lung damage in sufferers who have not been admitted to hospital but continue to experience breathlessness after being infected with Covid.
The study’s chief investigator, Fergus Gleeson, said: ‘We knew from our post-hospital Covid study that xenon could detect abnormalities when the CT scan and other lung function tests are normal.
‘What we’ve found now is that, even though their CT scans are normal, the xenon MRI scans have detected similar abnormalities in patients with long Covid.
‘These patients have never been in hospital and did not have an acute severe illness when they had their Covid-19 infection.
Experts used MRI scans to detect abnormalities (Picture: Getty Images)
‘Some of them have been experiencing their symptoms for a year after contracting Covid-19.’
The Oxford University professor of radiology, who is also a consultant radiologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, continued: ‘There are now important questions to answer, such as, how many patients with long Covid will have abnormal scans, the significance of the abnormality we’ve detected, the cause of the abnormality, and its longer-term consequences.
‘Once we understand the mechanisms driving these symptoms, we will be better placed to develop more effective treatments.’
Earlier this week, Metro.co.uk spoke to a singing teacher who had to give up her job because suspected long Covid has left her unable to sing.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, is one of the UK’s earliest possible cases, having first got symptoms in mid December 2019.
Gas transfer in the lungs of some lonh Covid sufferers was found to be particularly poor (Picture: Getty Images)
Three other sufferers who have also passed their two year anniversary with the virus, also told the website about a host of horrifying symptoms – with breathlessness being among their more minor issues.
In the study, patients were required to lie in an MRI scanner and breathe in one litre of the gas that has been tweaked so that it can be seen using MRI.
Xenon, which is safe to inhale, behaves in a very similar way to oxygen, meaning radiologists can observe how it moves from the lungs into the bloodstream.
The scan takes just a few minutes and, as it does not require radiation exposure, can be repeated over time to see changes to the lungs.
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While the full Explain study will recruit about 400 participants, the initial pilot had 36 participants making up three groups.
This included those diagnosed with long Covid who had been to long Covid clinics and who had normal CT scans, and people who had been in hospital with coronavirus and discharged more than three months ago, who had normal or nearly normal CT scans and who were not experiencing long Covid.
The third group was an age and gender-matched control group who did not have long Covid symptoms and were not admitted to hospital with the virus.
Dr Emily Fraser, a respiratory consultant who leads the Oxford Post-Covid Assessment Clinic, explained: ‘These are interesting results and may indicate that the changes observed within the lungs of some patients with long Covid contribute to breathlessness.
‘However, these are early findings and further work to understand the clinical significance is key.’
Asked what people suffering from the symptom can take from the findings, she added: ‘I think that the message should be that we are actively researching what is driving long Covid.’
But Dr Fraser also said people should not give up on the current exercises and rehab they are working on, since such programmes are also helpful.
The findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, were posted on the bioRxiv pre-print server.
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