Tom Hanks' coronavirus discomfort 'pretty much done in two weeks' – why do complications linger for some?

Tom Hanks has said his coronavirus discomfort was “pretty much done in two weeks”.

The Academy Award winning actor and his wife Rita Wilson, both 63, caught the infection while Hanks filmed an Elvis Presley biopic in Australia in March.

Hanks said he and his wife had “very different reactions” to the coronavirus, with Wilson developing “severe nausea”, losing her sense of smell and taste, and coming down with a “much higher fever”.

Meanwhile, the Forrest Gump actor endured “crippling body aches”, became “very fatigued all the time” and was unable to concentrate for more than “12 minutes”, adding the latter is his “natural state anyway”.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 19: Tom Hanks attends the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Tom Hanks and his wife caught coronavirus while filming in Australia. (Getty Images)

Now in their native LA, the couple are said to be doing well. While welcome news for fans, reports are increasingly emerging of coronavirus survivors who are still battling the effects of the infection months after testing negative.

In an interview with The Guardian, Hanks said of his and Wilson’s illness: “Our discomfort because of the virus was pretty much done in two weeks and we had very different reactions, and that was odd.”

Early research suggests the coronavirus is mild in four out of five cases, however, it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks attend the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 05, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks are now back in LA. (Getty Images)

Since the outbreak was identified at the end of 2019, more than 11.4 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Of these, more than 6.1 million are known to have recovered.

While some seem to shrug off the infection relatively quickly, for others it takes time to get back to their old self.

Calls have been made for greater research into so-called post-COVID syndrome, with some scientists questioning whether it is a condition in its own right.

How coronavirus complications can linger

In mild cases, the coronavirus’ tell-tale cough or loss of smell or taste can “last for several weeks once the infection has gone”.

Early analysis of Chinese data by the World Health Organization revealed patients with mild symptoms had generally “clinically recovered” at around two weeks, while those with more severe or critical illness took between three and six weeks to get back on their feet.

Post-viral fatigue, feeling exhausted, can theoretically occur after fighting off any virus.

One of the main complications of the coronavirus is pneumonia, which comes about when the infection spreads to the air sacs in the lungs.

These then become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus, making it difficult to draw in air. In some cases, tissue scarring can occur.

“The shortness of breath may take some considerable time to improve [because] the body is getting over scarring and inflammation”, GP Dr Sarah Jarvis told the BBC.

Those requiring intensive care, which may involve ventilation, could still be feeling the effects 12 to 18 months later.

Dr Alison Pittard from the Royal College of Anaesthetists told the BBC this is typical of any critical care stint, with muscle mass being lost when spending a long time in bed. It takes time to build this back up, with some patients requiring physiotherapy.

The coronavirus was identified less than a year ago. A lack of long-term data means no one can say for sure what lasting effects it may have.

Some patients’ immune systems over-react to the infection, causing an excessive release of immune-fighting proteins, known as a cytokine storm.

This can trigger lasting damage to the lung, with “injured” cells being replaced by inflexible scar tissue.

Doctors have said tens of thousands of coronavirus survivors in the UK will need to be called back to hospital to check for pulmonary fibrosis; lung scarring that can make even getting dressed a struggle.

A Chinese study published at the beginning of the outbreak found 66 out of 70 patients had some level of damage after being discharged from hospital.

Professor Mauro Giacca, from King’s College London, previously told parliament the lungs of some people who died with the coronavirus were completely unrecognisable.

The deceased, who were in hospital for more than a month, had “complete disruption of the lung architecture”, he added.

“In some lights you can’t even distinguish that it used to be a lung.”

Professor Giacca studied the autopsies of patients who died in Italy after 30 to 40 days in intensive care. He found substantial amounts of the virus persisting in lungs, as well as “large numbers of very big fused cells”.

The coronavirus is one of seven strains of a virus class that are known to infect humans.

Others include severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), which killed 774 and 858 people in 2002/3 and 2012, respectively.

Between 20% and 60% of Sars and Mers survivors are said to have experienced a health problem similar to pulmonary fibrosis.

A 15-year follow-up study by scientists from Peking University People’s Hospital in Beijing found this generally eased over time.

What is the coronavirus?

The coronavirus mainly spreads face to face via infected droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze.

There is also evidence it can spread in faeces and survive on surfaces.

As well as a cough and loss of taste or smell, symptoms typically include fever.

The infection itself has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting it off.

The steroid dexamethasone is being used in hospitals throughout the UK to reduce the risk of death among patients on ventilators or oxygen.

Officials urge people ward off infection by washing their hands regularly and maintaining social distancing.

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