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What Happens to Your Lungs When You Get COVID

Know your enemy before it will come back.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the world, with the death toll piling up. The disease does not discriminate—and recently infected the President and the White House, sending a clear message: none of us should feel safe. Because COVID-19 a respiratory virus, Eat This, Not That! Health spoke to Yale top lung specialists, who explain exactly what happens to your lungs on coronavirus, so you know the warning signs. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.


Who Should Be Worried Before the Next Wave


"A patient's age and pre-existing health status seem to be important factors influencing the severity of COVID-19 infection," Stephen Baldassarri, MD, a Yale Medicine lung doctor who treats critically ill patients in the ICU, says. "Older people and those with underlying health problems are at higher risks of complications. Among younger adults, I have cared for a significant number of critically ill patients with obesity, diabetes, and other underlying health conditions," explains Baldassarri.

"We still don't know exactly why these conditions may predispose people to a more severe illness, though research is ongoing. The large recent British RECOVERY clinical trial found that low dose dexamethasone (a steroid medicine) improved outcomes in severely ill patients (those needing mechanical ventilation or receiving supplemental oxygen). However, steroids did not benefit individuals with less severe illness. This discovery should improve outcomes and reduce mortality in people who become critically ill from COVID-19 infection," Baldassarri told Eat This, Not That Health!.


These Are Your Lungs

lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

"This is what a healthy respiratory system looks like," explains Naftali Kaminski, MD, Boehringer-Ingelheim Endowed Professor of Internal Medicine, Chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine Department of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine.

(All illustrations are made by Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D., an associate Research Scientist in Neurosurgery, Yale School of Medicine).


This is What Happens When You Breathe in Air

Lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

And, this is how you breathe in air with a healthy respiratory system with the help of alveoli, whose primary purpose is to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules to and from the bloodstream.


The Virus Enters the Body

lungs graph infection
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

Then, COVID-19 comes along. "Most of COVID-19 infections occur through the nose and mouth, many of the infected people have mild or no symptoms, but the virus is in the airways and spread by them," Dr. Kaminski explains. 


Mild Disease Can Occur

Lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

According to research, 80 percent of COVID-19 cases are mild. Some people are asymptomatic, while others might experience a variety of symptoms—including dry cough, fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of sense of smell or taste, gastrointestinal issues, or even pink eye. 


A Severe Infection Can Occur

Lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

Unfortunately, 15 percent of COVID-19 patients experience a severe infection. "Severe presentation is often characterized by inflammation of the lung, with inflammatory cells infiltrating the lung and fluid accumulation, that causes shortness of breath," says Dr. Kaminski. In these cases, recovery is delayed, as the body continues to fight the serious infection and struggles for oxygen. 


Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) Can Occur

Lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.

Approximately five percent of cases of COVID-19 are critical with a serious risk of death. "In the most severe presentation, the patient develops acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which the airspaces (alveoli) are full with fluids and inflammatory cells, and the native lining is dying," explains Dr. Kaminski. As you can see, there is very little oxygen available for breathing. "This situation requires mechanical ventilation."


How to Treat the Virus

Infectious doctor exam and screening for new corona virus(novel Coronavirus 2019 disease,COVID-19,nCoV)that pandemic outbreak

The main issue with COVID-19, other than the fact that we currently have no vaccination against it, is that killing the virus is hard, "because we do not have a specific drug, only candidates," explains Dr. Kaminski. Therefore, approaches to fight it involve prevention of infection, "easiest by isolation and protection," as well as protecting the lung ("helping lung cells recover"), and inhibiting inflammation, which is "used frequently, and maybe effective but complicated because some inflammation is needed to fight infection," he explains. 

If you feel anything like what was described here, or any of the most common symptoms, contact a medical professional immediately to see if you have coronavirus. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah