By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Patients with existing illnesses that cause breathlessness, wheezing or lung problems run a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19 infection due to the new coronavirus, according to a pooled analysis study published on Wednesday.

It also found that shortness of breath – also known as dyspnoea – is the only symptom of COVID-19 that is significantly associated with severe cases and with patients requiring admission to intensive care units (ICU).

The findings, which were not peer-reviewed but were published online on the MedRxiv scientific study site, suggest that not all underlying health conditions carry the same risk of added complications in patients infected with COVID-19.

A condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, – a chronic progressive lung disease that causes long-term breathing problems – is the greatest risk factor for severe COVID-19 among hospitalized patients, the research found.

Vageesh Jain of University College London’s Institute for Global Health, who co-led the work, said the findings should help guide public health officials and doctors in prioritizing people at highest risk of severe illness with COVID-19.

The new virus has caused a pandemic of disease around the world with more than 200,000 people infected and almost 8,500 deaths.

The disease, called COVID-19, is a respiratory infection that in severe cases causes shortness of breath and lung failure. In milder cases, the most common symptoms are a fever and cough.

The study, conducted by researchers at Britain’s University College London, pooled and analyzed the results of seven smaller studies from China and included a total of 1,813 patients, all of whom were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19.

Patients with shortness of breath were 3.7 times more likely to have severe COVID-19 disease and 6.6 times more likely to need intensive care than those without, it found. Patients with COPD were 6.4 times more likely to develop severe disease, and 17.8 times more likely to be admitted to intensive care.

“Whilst dyspnoea was not a particularly common symptom in COVID-19 patients, its significant association with both severe disease and ICU admission may help clinicians discriminate between severe and non-severe COVID-19 cases,” Jain said in a statement about the findings.

SOURCE: MedRxiv, March 16, 2020.