Do These X-Rays Show What COVID-19 Does To Your Lungs?

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A photo of four x-rays side-by-side compares lung damage inflicted by COVID-19 and two additional diseases.

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A graphic exhorting social media users to take COVID-19 seriously only added to the disinformation surrounding the disease.

The meme, which began circulating on Facebook in May 2020, shows four different chest X-rays. The caption claims that the fourth, in which the chest is almost completely faded out, shows the effect of COVID-19.

“Maybe staying at home is clearer to understand now,” the caption exclaims:

But the image in the graphic differs from x-rays released by actual medical sources thus far. A report published in February 2020 by researchers in Michigan and China, for example, showed “opacities” in the chest of the patient, described as a 59-year-old woman:

The paper, by Michigan University radiology professor Prachi Agarwal and medical radiologist Weifang Kong, was also covered in the trade publication Imaging Technology News:

The pair discovered that while the imaging appearance of COVID-19 is not specific, the presence of bilateral nodular and peripheral ground glass opacities and consolidation should serve as an alert to radiologists that COVID-19 may actually be present in certain patients.

For example, individuals who have a defined travel history to areas where others are infected by COVID-19, or have been directly exposed to others with the virus, should be examined carefully.

Agarwal adds that in radiologic terms, ‘ground glass’ means that a hazy lung opacity shows up on imaging that is not dense enough to obscure any underlying pulmonary vessels or bronchial walls. While consolidation, on the other hand, refers to dense opacities obscuring vessels and bronchial walls.

Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, a lung pathologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told us that while not “grossly inaccurate,” the graphic is actually inconclusive for anyone seeking to discern between the damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 — the specific coronavirus that leads to the illness known as COVID-19 or C-19 — and other illnesses.

In fact, he said, the four pictures could represent the same patient at different stages of several diseases — including COVID-19.

“X-ray does not confirm a diagnosis of COVID,” said Mukhopadhyay, who posted a video presentation in March 2020 on the relationship between the virus and another condition, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). “For that you need the swab testing. Without seeing what context they posted is it’s impossible to say whether it’s misleading or not. Without seeing what context they posted this in, it’s impossible to say whether it’s misleading or not.”

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