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What Happens to Your Lungs on Coronavirus

This is exactly how the infectious disease can devastate your lungs and put your life at risk.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the world, with the death toll quickly piling up. By now, most of us are educated on prevention measures (which include social distancing, proper hand hygiene, and regularly disinfecting surfaces) and can thoroughly identify the symptoms (fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell). 

However, there is still a lot of confusion as to exactly what happens inside of our bodies once the highly infectious and potentially deadly virus enters—and how it can completely ravage the lungs to the point of death. 

Eat This, Not That Health spoke to 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 who explains exactly what happens to your lungs on coronavirus via a helpful diagram illustrated by Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D., an associate Research Scientist in Neurosurgery, Yale School of Medicine. 


These Are Your Lungs

lungs graph
Dr. Arnaud Marlier, Ph.D.


This is what a healthy respiratory system looks like. 


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. 

And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 50 Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Eat This, Not That! is constantly monitoring the latest food news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed (and answer your most urgent questions). Here are the precautions you should be taking at the grocery store, the foods you should have on hand, the meal delivery services and restaurant chains offering takeout you need to know about, and ways you can help support those in need. We will continue to update these as new information develops. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.
Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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