With nearly 12 million coronavirus cases across the world, we are still far from the finish line of this pandemic. Of more than 4.4 currently infected patients, 99% of them are in mild condition while only 15% are in serious or critical condition. While surviving the impacts of COVID-19 on the body is possible, patients need to face another problem: the aftermath of the virus.
The World Health Organization reported that about 80% of COVID-19 patients recover without needing any specialist treatment. Meanwhile, only 1 in 6 people become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing. For those who have mild to moderate symptoms, they may experience a dry cough or sore throat because their lungs and airways swell. Some people have pneumonia, a lung infection in which the alveoli are inflamed.
The swelling is worse for severe COVID-19 cases. According to WebMD, the leading source for trustworthy and timely health and medical news and information, the patients’ lungs are filled with fluid and debris. They are also more likely to have more serious pneumonia, making it harder for them to breathe. In critical cases, the infection can damage the walls and linings of the air sacs in your lungs. Experts say that lungs would have a harder job swapping oxygen and carbon dioxide.
All cases show that COVID-19 would still have detrimental impacts on a patient’s lungs.
How Coronavirus Damages the Lungs
Out of all our organs, the lungs are the most commonly affected by COVID-19. As the virus travels down a person’s airways, the lining can become irritated and inflamed. Experts said that the infection can reach all the way down into their alveoli in some cases. “Viral respiratory infections can lead to anything from a simple cough that lasts for a few weeks or months to full-blown chronic wheezing or asthma,” Dr. Andrew Martin, chairman of pulmonary medicine at Deborah Heart and Lung Center, said.
Experts explained that when the virus enters the cells of the airway through a molecule called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, which connects the inside of our cells to the outside via the cell membrane, our bodies react by producing an intense immune response known as “cytokine storm.” According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, this reaction can damage our lung cells.
Scar tissue replaces the damaged cells, which results in a condition called “pulmonary fibrosis.” Pulmonary fibrosis can make patients breathless doing activities that they would usually manage without difficulty. While scientists are still not sure what would be the impact of this condition after infection, there’s a possibility that it may lead to long-term symptoms and a progressive fall in lung function.
Dr. Gary Weinstein, a pulmonologist/critical care medicine specialist at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, said that the people who are most at risk are those who are 65 years and older; people with chronic lung, heart, kidney and liver disease, and people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility. COVID-19 patients may be severely debilitated, deconditioned, and weak, and could require aggressive rehabilitation.
“Finally, when patients have lung failure, they frequently have failure or dysfunction of their other organs, such as the kidney, heart, and brain. However, patients with mild symptoms will recover faster and be less likely to need oxygen but will likely have weakness and fatigue,” Dr. Weinstein said.
Scientists say that people who have been infected by COVID-19 may be left with permanent lung damage. Chris Meadows, an intensive care doctor at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London, explained that if someone is left with scarring in their lungs, there’s no way to reverse it. All they can do is improve their aerobic fitness to compensate for their lower lung function and learn to cope with breathlessness.
Often, COVID-19 infection can lead to the development of pneumonia. Respiratory physician John Wilson said that there’s evidence that pneumonia caused by coronavirus may be particularly severe. “Once we have an infection in the lung and, if it involves the air sacs, then the body’s response is first to try and destroy [the virus] and limit its replication,” he said.
Prof. Christine Jenkins, chair of Lung Foundation Australia and a leading respiratory physician, said that people aged 65 and above should be extra careful as well as people with medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer or chronic disease affecting the lungs, heart, kidney or liver because they are most at risk of developing this condition.
“It’s important to remember that no matter how healthy and active you are, your risk for getting pneumonia increases with age. This is because our immune system naturally weakens with age, making it harder for our bodies to fight off infections and diseases,” Jenkins said.
According to The Guardian, an independent news organization that investigates, interrogates, and exposes the actions of those in power, without fear, scientists haven’t found anything that can stop people from getting COVID-19 pneumonia. Prof. Jenkins said that they are still hoping to discover various combinations of viral and anti-viral medications that could be effective.
“At the moment there isn’t any established treatment apart from supportive treatment, which is what we give people in intensive care,” she said.
Additionally, COVID-19 can cause a dangerous and potentially fatal condition known as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). A study conducted by Chinese researchers has recently linked COVID-19 to ARDS. They examined risk factors for 191 confirmed coronavirus patients who died while being treated in two hospitals in Wuhan, China. The findings showed that 50 of the 54 patients who died had developed ARDS while only nine of the 137 survivors had ARDS.
ARDS can damage the patient’s lungs, both the wall and lining cells of the alveolus as well as the capillaries. “Eventually, the wall of the alveolus gets thicker than it should be. The thicker this wall gets, the harder it is to transfer oxygen, the more you feel short of breath, and the more and more you start moving towards severe illness and possibly death,” lung pathologist Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, MD, said.