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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Coronavirus and Your Lungs: How Does COVID-19 Affect Your Lungs?

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It’s no news that there is a deadly respiratory virus known as COVID-19 that is gradually bringing the world to a standstill. However, many people still don’t know how this virus works and how deadly it can be, hence the purpose of this article.

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COVID-19 was first seen late last year as a couple of new pneumonia cases, which was caused by a new Coronavirus. One common thing that doctors have learned since the onset of this disease is that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease.

COVID-19 affects the entire respiratory tract, including your lungs, and as such, causes a lot of breathing issues, which initially begins as a mild case before spanning out to become severe if care isn’t taken.

In patients who have an underlying disease condition such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems, and previous lung diseases or who are advanced in age, the COVID-19 virus can prove to be much more deadly.

How then does the Coronavirus affect your lungs?

COVID-19 is caused by a particular virus known as the SARS-CoV-2, and it is part of a group of viruses known as the corona virus family. When the virus is opportune to enter into your body, it comes in contact with the mucous membranes that line the nose, eyes, and mouth.

Once the virus infuses into the mucous membrane of the mouth, eyes, and nose, it begins to multiply within a healthy cell and then uses the cell to form new baby viruses. Once this happens, these baby viruses start to increase and start to infect the cells that are surrounding the already infected cell.

Your respiratory tract is like a tree that is turned upside down. Your trachea or windpipe is like the trunk of the tree which, as you go down, splits into several different smaller branches, which ends up in your lungs. In medicine, this tree is known as the tracheobronchial tree.

At the end of each of these tiny branches are tiny sacs that are known collectively as the alveoli sac or the alveoli. In the alveoli, carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen. This means that it is in the alveoli that carbon dioxide is removed from your blood, and oxygen is then used to replace the carbon dioxide already removed.

The new coronavirus often infects both the upper and lower respiratory tracts. Coronavirus can enter the respiratory tract through either the mouth, the nose, or the eye. Once this occurs, the respiratory tract becomes inflamed, and in severe cases, this inflammation can reach into the alveoli.

Since Corona is a new virus, it can sometimes be challenging to learn its full extent. Scientists are still trying to the virus and what it does to the lungs.

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They believe that the effects of corona virus on the body, especially on the lungs, are similar to that which is seen in two very dangerous respiratory infections, which are Middle East Respiratory Syndrome(popularly known as MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(also known as SARS).

Generally, as the virus progresses down your respiratory tract, your immune system tends to put up a resistance and fight back. As a result of the response of your immune system, the mucosa lining of your airways, including your lungs become swollen.

Sometimes, this inflammation may begin in one of your lungs but will quickly spread to your other lung. About 80%-90% of people who get the COVID-19 virus are seen to often get mild to moderate symptoms.

People who have the Coronavirus initially experience a sore throat or a dry cough while others may also experience pneumonia. Pneumonia is a condition in which the cells of the alveoli of the lungs become swollen as a result of an infection.

Doctors will often detect the swelling of the airways on a C.T. scan or a Chest X-ray. Doctors may see something known as “ground glass Opacity,” and this is because the appearance on the C.T. scan is like frosted glass on a shower door hence its name.

However, in severe cases, which is about 14% of the total Corona Cases, the infection mostly affects both lungs. Both lungs get inflamed, and as the swelling becomes severe, the lungs tend to get filled with fluid as well as with debris.

Also, patients with severe cases have a terrible case of pneumonia such that their air sacs (the alveoli) become filled with mucous, fluid as well as with other cells that are trying desperately to fight off the infection.

Because of the presence of these foreign substances in the lungs, you may find it difficult to breathe as it will feel like your lungs are tightening and your airways are constricted. It’s possible that you are often out of breath, and it is one of the symptoms of the COVID-19 virus attacking your lungs.

Patients who have critical cases are not much in number as they are only about 5% of all corona cases. For patients who are critically affected, the infection is seen to have spread all over the lungs damaging its walls as well as the linings of the alveoli (the air sac).

The harder your lungs keep trying to fight off the infection, the more the infection spreads, and the more critical the patient becomes. As your lungs continue to try to fight off the viruses, the walls of the lungs become inflamed and keep filling up with fluids.

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The presence of fluid within the lungs prevents the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen from happening and, as such, causing intense difficulty in breathing.

In critical cases, the patient is seen to experience severe pneumonia, and the possible presence of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome(ARDS).

In this kind of case, the patient becomes unable to breathe on his/her own and, as such, will require the aid of a ventilator to help him or her breathe.

Factors that can be used to measure the effect of COVID-19 on the lungs

According to Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D., M.H.S. who is an expert on lung diseases and works at John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center(one of the emergency hospitals that deals with a lot of COVID-19 patients), there are three factors that can affect the risk of lung damages as well as alter the overall outcome of the disease and they are:

1. The severity of the disease

The disease severity caused by the Coronavirus can largely influence the extent of damage in the lungs. Based on the symptoms and the areas of the lungs and respiratory tract that are affected, the severity of the coronavirus cases is divided into two; Mild and Severe cases.

According to Dr. Galiatsatos, milder cases can be seen to cause the presence of scars that are long-lasting.

2. Previous or Underlying Health Conditions

According to Dr. Galiatsatos, the second critical factor is whether there is the presence of any underlying health conditions.

Health Conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease(COPD), diabetes, other lung problems, as well as heart diseases, can significantly increase the risk and raise the chances of damage in lung issues.

Also, people who are advanced in age are considered to be more susceptible to develop severe and critical cases of COVID-19.

This is because as you age, you may likely begin to experience a reduction in the rate at which your lungs can expand to accommodate air as well as you start developing a weakened immune system and, as such, increasing your chances of contracting any disease including COVID-19.

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3. Early Detection and Type of Treatment

The third factor that determines the amount of damage done by COVID-19 is how early the disease was detected and the type of healthcare and treatment they receive. When patients who are already immunocompromised receive timely treatments, the extent of lung damage that may occur will be reduced.

What are the damages that can occur as a result of the Coronavirus

COVID-19, which is the disease that is a result of the new Coronavirus, can cause some severe complications such as pneumonia and, in some critical conditions, can result in acute respiratory distress syndrome as well as MERS.

One other complication which can also be very severe is sepsis.

Sepsis occurs when there is an influx of infection into the bloodstream. Once sepsis occurs in the patient, it can cause severe harm to the lungs as well as other vital organs in the body,

1. COVID-19 Pneumonia

When a person has ordinary pneumonia(i.e., the one that isn’t caused by COVID-19), the lungs of the person become filled with fluid and, as such, causing difficulties in breathing.

In some people, the pneumonia they have may become severe, and as such, they may require treatment at the hospital using supplemental oxygen or, in extreme cases, a ventilator.

However, pneumonia that is caused by COVID-19 affects both lungs at the same time. The air sacs or the alveoli that are present in the lungs, which generally should be filled with ordinary oxygen, will then become filled with fluid.

Once this occurs, the patient will experience cough, shortness of breath, difficulties in breathing, and other breathing disorders. Most people who have ordinary pneumonia usually recover without any lasting damage to the lungs.

However, those who have pneumonia caused by COVID-19 are generally severe and, more often than not, lead to complications such that even after the patient has recovered from the disease will take months to regain normal respiratory function.

2. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

Once a person has COVID-19, the air sacs present within the lungs begin to get filled with fluid. This fluid comes from the leaking blood vessels that are found around the lungs.

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Once this occurs, the patient starts to experience shortness of breath, which will lead to a form of a lung disease known as ARDS.

Patients battling with ARDS tend to be unable to breathe on their own and will require the use of a ventilator to help pump and circulate oxygen around the body. People who have an attack from ARDS both at home and at the hospital may have a fatal one.

People who have ARDS and have survived from it, may have scarring on their lungs.

3. Sepsis

Another uncommon but reasonably possible complication of COVID-19 is sepsis. Sepsis can be said to have occurred when an infection enters the bloodstream and spread through the blood to every tissue in the body.

According to Dr. Galiatsatos, the lungs, the heart, as well as other body organs, work together like a beautiful orchestra. However, when sepsis occurs, there is a problem. That beautiful symphony and cooperation between them are broken.

Sepsis is a dangerous complication, and it is rare for someone to survive it. If they do survive it, then the person can have lasting damages to the lungs as well as other organs of the body.

4. Super infection

Generally, the body has an immune system that helps fight off diseases and infections. When there is an invader in the body, the body sends the components of the immune system to fight off that foreign body.

However, when the immune system is sent to fight off a complicated viral infection like COVID-19, if any other infection comes in, the immune system might not be able to recognize it as a foreign body; hence, this new infection can begin to spread.

If this situation occurs, then the patient is considered to have a super infection. When there are damages to the lungs and another respiratory infection occurs, it can cause further damage to the lungs, causing more scarring.

In conclusion, many people are asking if the damage to the lungs as a reversible. According to Dr. Galiatsatos, it is possible for the lungs to heal, but it does take time. There is an initial injury to the lungs, after which the lungs become scarred.

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Over time, the lung tissue will heal, but time is needed for the lungs to heal itself. Hence, it may take within 3 months to one year before the patient can attain full lung function.

References;

  • What we know about the long term effects of COVID-19; Healthline
  • COVID-19 and your lungs; Nationaljewish
  • What does COVID-19 do to your lungs; WebMD
Coronavirus and Your Lungs
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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative & educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

Deborah Akinola
Wirter, poet and public speaker
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