What does COVID-19 do to the body?

By now, everyone has heard of COVID-19, or more commonly known as
the coronavirus. Flights are being canceled, along with schools,
businesses, weddings, and even Broadway shows. Some governments are
encouraging their citizens to stay home whenever possible; others are
enforcing mass quarantines. Face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper
(for some reason) are cleared from store shelves as people stockpile to
prepare themselves for the worst. The 20-second hand washing technique
is being promoted by health authorities and is all over social media.

However, what is the coronavirus exactly? Is it nothing more than a bad
flu (unfortunately, it’s worse)? How is it possible for some people to
test positive to the illness without any physical impairments while
other cases prove fatal?

The 2020 Pandemic
A pandemic is defined as a disease that spreads over a whole country or
the entire world. With borders closing and countries going on lockdown,
we can definitely say the latter is the case.

The coronavirus
can affect people differently depending on their age, any underlying
conditions, and the dose of the virus they’re exposed to.

Take
Connor Reed for example. He came down with COVID-19 during its initial
outbreak in Wuhan, China. He lives a 20-minute walk from the market
where many experts believe the strain had first affected people. Reed
assumed he had just a head cold. A week later, he began feeling better
until he was hit with a fever and cough. His body began aching. After
another week, he thought he was recovering once again until the cough
worsened.

“It was hard to breathe,” says Reed. “Even walking to
the bathroom, I felt like I was running out of air. My ears hurt from
it; I lost my balance at times. It started to get scary, like the worst
flu I’ve ever had.”

He went to the hospital and was told he had
“a new kind of pneumonia.” He was healthy originally so there wasn’t
much concern for fatal consequences from his disease. Steroid inhalers
helped lower the inflammation in his lungs. After a full month of being
sick, Reed made a full recovery. By then, the coronavirus had begun to
be featured in headlines worldwide, and Reed may have been one of the
earliest victims.

What does COVID-19 do to the body?

 
How Does the Coronavirus Affect the Body?
The virus, of course, is invisible to the naked eye but those affected
can share it, usually through sneezing or coughing, sending droplets
into the air. These droplets can then land on various surfaces where the
virus can stay viable for days. Then the virus enters the host usually
through the mouth, nose, or eyes, often from touching these parts of
the body.

There are four common strains of human coronavirus:

  1. 229E (alpha coronavirus)
  2. NL63 (alpha coronavirus)
  3. OC43 (beta coronavirus)
  4. HKU1 (beta coronavirus) 

There are three other more deadly strains of the virus that have made an appearance in the last couple of decades:

  1. 2002 – SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which also caused a global panic almost 20 years ago.
  2. 2012 – MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) which is less common but more deadly than SARS.
  3. 2019
    – COVID-19, an epidemic we a re living through today that has already
    infected over 181,000 people and killed 6,600 as of March 16. 

How Do Doctors Test for the Coronavirus?
Swabs or direct samples from the nose, throat, or lung phlegm can
indicate the presence of the virus, as well as certain blood tests.
Blood tests can be imperative since swabs can return negative while the
virus is duplicating itself in the lower lungs.

Professor
Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and
Immunity says, “Early on, you had doctors in China diagnosing just off
chest scans because you can see that lung inflammation, even if it’s not
severe.”

However, infectious disease physician and
microbiologist Professor Peter Collignon says it’s not clear yet if
everyone gets the coronavirus in their lungs. “Finding it down there
isn’t a tipping point [for severity] by any means. Some children have it
in their lungs but display no symptoms. But it might not have traveled
all the way down from the upper respiratory area in every case.”

What are the Symptoms for the Coronavirus?

Much of the knowledge found on this virus is from studies on the
initial 55,000 cases in China, where about 80% of those affected were
able to fight off the disease, even those who developed pneumonia. Some
people dubbed their experiences as “three weeks in hell” as they
struggled to breathe, while some had a small cough and a sore throat,
while others had no symptoms at all.

Based on the data from China, the main symptoms include:

  • Fever (88% of patients)
  • Cough (68%)
  • Fatigue (38%)
  • Shortness of breath (19%) 

Other symptoms may be chills, a sore throat, headaches, diarrhea, and nausea. Less than 5% of cases include a blocked nose.

According to Professor Collignon, patients tend to have mild symptoms
in the first week or so. Some severe cases can turn into pneumonia
during the second week. In the rarest cases, the disease can become
deadly. The assistant director-general of the World Health Organization
(WHO) Bruce Aylward advises people who have the virus or suspect they
might monitor their symptoms closely, particularly their fevers and
breathing.

As the immune system fights back against the
disease, blood vessels can begin to leak, flooding the lungs with
cellular debris. This makes it harder for the lungs to function
adequately, and it’s at this point that the patient struggles to
breathe. Lower oxygen levels can put pressure on the heart, lowering
blood pressure to dangerous levels.

“Even if the virus spreads
to the heart or the kidneys and damages them, the real cause of death is
still probably going to be oxygen levels falling and setting everything
else off,” Professor Collignon says. “If you’re an older person or
already unwell and those organs are weaker, it can be the straw that
breaks the camel’s back.”

Co-infection, being infected by two bugs at once, can also be the reason for coronavirus fatality.

Who is at Risk for Serious Complications from the Coronavirus?

WHO reports that about 20% of all corona cases become severe with
depleting oxygen levels. Of that percent, 6% went into critical care as
organs began to fail or septic shock began. About 3.4% of these had
died. However, Professor Collignon assumes the real death rate is much
lower since many mild cases go under the radar.

Very few
children have suffered from this disease, while older people and those
with heart disease and diabetes have the highest risk of experiencing
fatal complications. Smokers are also at a higher risk.

Remember that the dosage of the virus someone comes into contact with
can affect how complicated their case may become. This could be why some
young and healthy medical workers have died while treating patients
with coronavirus.

How Do Doctors Treat the Coronavirus?

Unfortunately, a vaccine for COVID-19 is about a year away from being
ready. In the meantime, treatment is focused on managing complications,
like providing oxygen, ensuring the body has enough fluids and
monitoring the symptoms. Antibiotics won’t work against this disease
since it’s not caused by bacteria, but they may be used to prevent or
treat secondary infections.

To slow the spread of the disease
and hopefully lower the stress on already overworked healthcare systems,
containment measures like social distancing and self-isolation are
being put into place.

In Wuhan, Reed’s quarantine ended weeks
ago but he has been living under lockdown since January along with the
tens of millions of residents in China.

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