Long-term dyspnea, regional ventilation distribution and peripheral lung function in COVID-19 survivors: a 1 year follow up study

BMC Pulm Med. 2022 Nov 9;22(1):408. doi: 10.1186/s12890-022-02214-5.


Background: Dyspnea is common after COVID-19 pneumonia and can be characterized by a defective CO2 diffusion (DLCO) despite normal pulmonary function tests (PFT). Nevertheless, DLCO impairment tends to normalize at 1 year, with no dyspnea regression. The altered regional distribution of ventilation and a dysfunction of the peripheral lung may characterize dyspnea at 1 year after COVID-19 pneumonia. We aimed at assessing the pattern of airway resistance and inflammation and the regional ventilation inhomogeneity in COVID-19 pneumonia survivors at 12-months after hospital discharge.

Methods: We followed up at 1-year patients previously admitted to the respiratory units (intensive care or sub-intensive care unit) for COVID-19 acute respiratory failure at 1-year after hospital discharge. PFT (spirometry, DLCO), impulse oscillometry (IOS), measurements of the exhaled nitric oxide (FENO) and Electrical Impedance Tomography (EIT) were used to evaluate lung volumes, CO2 diffusion capacity, peripheral lung inflammation/resistances and the regional inhomogeneity of ventilation distribution. A full medical examination was conducted, and symptoms of new onset (not present before COVID-19) were recorded. Patients were therefore divided into two groups based on the presence/absence of dyspnea (defined as mMRC ≥1) compared to evaluate differences in the respiratory function derived parameters.

Results: Sixty-seven patients were admitted between October and December 2020. Of them, 42/67 (63%) patients were discharged alive and 33 were evaluated during the follow up. Their mean age was 64 ± 11 years and 24/33 (73%) were males. Their maximum respiratory support was in 7/33 (21%) oxygen, in 4/33 (12%) HFNC, in 14/33 (42%) NIV/CPAP and in 8/33 (24%) invasive mechanical ventilation. During the clinical examination, 15/33 (45%) reported dyspnea. When comparing the two groups, no significant differences were found in PFT, in the peripheral airway inflammation (FENO) or mechanical properties (IOS). However, EIT showed a significantly higher regional inhomogeneity in patients with dyspnea both during resting breathing (0.98[0.96-1] vs 1.1[1-1.1], p = 0.012) and during forced expiration (0.96[0.94-1] vs 1 [0.98-1.1], p = 0.045).

Conclusions: New onset dyspnea characterizes 45% of patients 1 year after COVID-19 pneumonia. In these patients, despite pulmonary function test may be normal, EIT shows a higher regional inhomogeneity both during quiet and forced breathing which may contribute to dyspnea.

Clinical trial registration: Clinicaltrials.gov NCT04343053, registration date 13/04/2020.

Keywords: COVID-19; Dyspnea; Electrical impedance tomography; Post COVID-19; Pulmonary function test; Spirometry.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • COVID-19* / complications
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Dyspnea / etiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Lung
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Survivors


  • Carbon Dioxide

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT04343053