Shortness of breath is “significantly associated” with severe cases of Covid-19 and admission to intensive care units, according to research.
The study led by the University College London also indicates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammatory lung condition which causes long-term breathing problems, to be “the greatest risk factor” for severe cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The findings, published in the online journal MedRxiv ahead of peer review, are based on the a meta-analysis of seven peer-reviewed studies from China, covering 1,813 patients.
Results showed patients who experienced dyspnoea, or difficulty in breathing, after being infected with the virus were 3.7 times more likely to have severe disease and 6.6 times more likely be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU), compared to those who did not show this symptom.
Dr Vageesh Jain, of the UCL Institute for Global Health and lead author on the study, said: “Our analysis finds that dyspnoea is the only symptom strongly predictive for both severe disease and ICU admission, and could be a useful symptom to help guide clinical management decisions.
“Whilst dyspnoea was not a particularly common symptom in Covid-19 patients (the most common symptoms for non-severe cases being fever and cough), its significant association with both severe disease and ICU admission may help clinicians discriminate between severe and non-severe Covid-19 cases.”
Of the 1,813 patients in the meta-analysis, 116 patients were admitted to the ICU and 315 patients classified as severe.
The researchers found 67.2% of the ICU patients showed signs of dyspnoea, compared with 10.2% in the non-ICU group.
Of all the underlying health conditions associated with Covid-19 severity, COPD was found to be have the highest number of ICU admissions, despite its low prevalence in the patients.
According to the researchers, patients with COPD were 6.4 times more likely to develop severe disease, and 17.8 times more likely to be admitted to ICU.
Cardiovascular disease and hypertension, which were the more prevalent pre-existing conditions in the study population, were also strongly associated with both severe disease and ICU admission, the researchers said.