When you get COVID-19, this is what happens to your body

COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, COVID-19 has spread across the globe, officially being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, NPR reported.

According to the WHO, COVID-19 is a disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (aka SARS-CoV-2) — a highly contagious virus with the potential to infect people of all ages and medical backgrounds. As of April 8, 2020, there were over 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the United States and over 14,000 COVID-19 related deaths, as reported by the New York Times.

Because so little was known about COVID-19 upon its discovery, plenty of misinformation began swirling about who can and cannot get the virus, what can and cannot protect you from contracting it, and what symptoms you can expect should you become infected. In the time since the initial discovery of COVID-19, doctors are continuing to learn more about the illness and provide factual information. While we hope self-quarantining and social distancing measures will prevent you from getting the disease, here’s what happens to your body when you have COVID-19.

There's more than one pathway for COVID-19 to enter your body

By early April, there were hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States, according to The New York Times. Of course, the quick spread of the once-unheard of virus prompted millions to try to acquire protective face masks, hoping to lower their risk of getting sick. However, wearing a face mask doesn’t mean you won’t catch COVID-19.

According to the CDC, there are multiple ways for COVID-19 to enter the body. As noted on the CDC’s website, the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.” Those tiny droplets can then land in the noses or mouths of others. But, as Martin S. Hirsch, senior physician in the Infectious Diseases Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, told USA Today, the disease “might be able to get in through the eyes … because that’s how other respiratory viruses behave.”

Once inside your body, COVID-19 penetrates healthy cells

Once severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (or SARS-CoV-2) — the virus responsible for COVID-19 — makes its way into the body, the infected person may not feel symptoms until two weeks later. Speaking with USA Today, Martin S. Hirsch, senior physician at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Services, said the average amount of time before a person begins to develop symptoms of the virus is about five days. 

However, just because you don’t feel sick doesn’t mean the virus isn’t silently attacking your body. In fact, the virus immediately gets to work by infecting the lining of your lungs. According to WebMD, the novel coronavirus has “spiky surface proteins” that it uses to latch on to healthy cells within the lining of your lungs. As noted by The New York Times, when these spikes penetrate a healthy cell, the genetic material of the virus is injected into that cell.

According to William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, the genetic material injected into a healthy cell then goes on to “hijack the metabolism of the cell and say, in effect, ‘Don’t do your usual job. Your job now is to help me multiply and make the virus.'”

Your body will present flu-like symptoms when you have COVID-19

While self-quarantining and social distancing may not be convenient, these measures are incredibly important to fight coronavirus. This is especially true considering you can pick up the virus from an asymptomatic individual who does not yet know they’ve been infected, as symptoms can take up to two weeks to appear.

However, when symptoms of COVID-19 do begin to present themselves within your body, you’ll likely feel as if you’re starting to come down with the common flu. As noted by BBC News, eight out of ten people infected with the virus will only experience a mild case of COVID-19. However, a mild case of the novel coronavirus isn’t akin to a mild cold, as The Cut detailed.

Cassie Garret, whose wife, Celeste Morrison, was diagnosed with a mild case of COVID-19, told Healthline that the symptoms came on slowly before worsening. “First came the cough and extreme fatigue,” the publication detailed. “Then her temperature rose to 99.7°F.” Later that week, however, Morrison’s fingernails and lips showed a blue tinge, prompting a trip to the ER where she was then diagnosed with pneumonia. The next week, the 37-year-old was diagnosed with COVID-19 and, thankfully, she recovered.

COVID-19 first affects the throat, then moves elsewhere in your body

While COVID-19 may make you feel like you’re coming down with the flu or a nasty common cold at first, the virus takes a much greater toll on your body — especially your lungs. 

According to The New York Times, one of the first symptoms someone with COVID-19 will probably notice is a sore throat accompanied by a dry cough. That is, a cough that doesn’t produce mucus or phlegm. Then, as the virus begins to multiply within your body and infect healthy cells, it “crawls progressively down the bronchial tubes,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, explained.

Of course, this is harmful to your lungs. According to WebMD, COVID-19 can infect both the upper and lower sections of your respiratory tract, making its way down your airways and possibly even reaching and infecting your alveoli — the tiny air sacks within your lungs. As The Atlantic journalist Ed Yong explained to Vox, while there’s still much to learn about COVID-19, it’s possible the virus causes “more severe illness” when it makes its way into the lower respiratory tract. 

COVID-19 injures your body's air passages

Chances are, should you come in contact with the virus and develop COVID-19, you’ll at first try to figure out if you are indeed infected by considering your symptoms. Even before any symptoms are present, though, the virus has begun attacking the air passages within your body. 

When a person infected with the virus does eventually begin to show the first symptoms — a dry cough and fever — respiratory physician John Wilson explained to The Guardian that it’s because the virus has made its way to the “respiratory tree” within the body, injuring it and causing inflammation. This it what causes a persistent cough.

“If this gets worse, it goes past just the lining of the airway and goes to the gas exchange units, which are at the end of the air passages,” the respiratory physician continued. “If they become infected, they respond by pouring out inflammatory material into the air sacs that are at the bottom of our lungs.”

COVID-19 can prevent your body from getting enough oxygen

Unfortunately, if you come in contact with a person who has COVID-19 and begin to develop it yourself, the virus has potential to take a major toll on your body and cause you to develop pneumonia. 

Depending on how quickly you catch your symptoms and seek medical help, the virus may have already made its way into the lower part of your respiratory tract. As respiratory physician John Wilson explained to The Guardian, this section of your respiratory tract houses “gas exchange units” located at the end of your air passages. Known as alveoli, these tiny air sacs appear as grape-like clusters and are responsible for passing oxygen into the blood vessels which surround them, ABC News explained.

According to Dr. Wilson, if those air sacs become inflamed from the virus, an “outpouring of inflammatory material” will flow into the lungs, causing pneumonia. Subsequently, lungs filled with inflammatory material won’t be able to provide adequate oxygen to the bloodstream, which in turn will reduce the body’s ability to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. 

Even if you're young and have a healthy body, COVID-19 may impact your health

Even though the first person in the Unites States diagnosed with COVID-19 was a man in his 30s, the idea that younger, healthy people were largely not at risk for contracting the virus remained a pervasive thought for weeks. However, a mid-March 2020 report the CDC revealed that nearly 40 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were between the ages of 20 and 54, proving that the virus does not discriminate. 

While the risk of dying from COVID-19 complications is significantly higher in people 65 years of age and older, the illness can still severely impact the health of younger individuals who contract the virus. 

“If you’re younger and healthier, you’re likely to survive COVID-19, but you still may end up on a ventilator for some period of time, and when that happens, your muscles begin to atrophy,” thoracic surgeon Osita Onugha told Business Insider. According to Dr. Onugha, being on a ventilator for even a few days and having your muscles begin to atrophy could mean up to a six-month recovery period for even the healthiest young people.

COVID-19 may affect your body's gastrointestinal system

COVID-19 is known to cause respiratory illness in patients. However, for some people who become infected with the virus, their symptoms may start as stomach pains. 

According to a March 2020 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the first patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States complained of abdominal discomfort on his second day in the hospital. Medical experts say that, while the majority of the focus is placed on a person’s lungs when diagnosing and treating COVID-19, it is entirely possible for the virus to appear in the gastrointestinal tract.

As discovered by a March 2020 study published by the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a “unique sub-group” of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 who did not have the usual symptoms of the disease (like a dry cough) did present digestive issues like vomiting and diarrhea. “Of course, we’re very focused on the lungs because that’s what can cause people to die,” the study’s coauthor Dr. Brennan Spiegel told Today. “But this virus, if it gets into your saliva and you swallow it, can then enter the intestinal system.”

When you have COVID-19, you could experience liver damage

While COVID-19 is widely known for attacking the respiratory systems of people who are diagnosed with the disease, the rest of your body is not immune from the havoc COVID-19 can wreak. Depending on the severity of your case, your age, and any underlying medical conditions you may have, COVID-19 could actually harm your liver. 

According to National Geographic, zoonotic coronaviruses such as COVID-19, SARS, and MERS can travel out from the respiratory system and, when it does, the liver is often a vulnerable target. “Once a virus gets into your bloodstream, they can swim to any part of your body,” Anna Suk-Fong Lok, assistant dean for clinical research at the University of Michigan Medical School, told the publication. She continued, explaining, “The liver is a very vascular organ so [a coronavirus] can very easily get into your liver.”

Of course, doctors are still learning about the novel coronavirus, but considering severe cases of liver damage and even cases of liver failure have been seen in patients diagnosed with SARS and MERS, it’s possible that COVID-19 could have the same effect in some people. 

When your body is infected with COVID-19, you could develop a particularly severe case of pneumonia

As noted by The Guardian, COVID-19 first started in 2019, though it was initially thought to be a mysterious and sudden cluster of pneumonia cases. As we now know, the cause for the pneumonia was discovered to be SARS-CoV-2: the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Thanks to modern medicine and antibiotics, most people who get pneumonia go on to recover. However, the pneumonia caused by COVID-19 isn’t your run-of-the-mill bacterial pneumonia. According to health experts, the common bacterial pneumonia is indicated on a lung scan by a white blotch on one section of the lung whereas pneumonia caused by a virus might appear as hazy patches, dubbed “ground glass opacities.” And then there’s COVID-19.

According to Mount Sinai radiologist Adam Bernheim, pneumonia caused by COVID-19 shows up in a “distinctive pattern” as a haze clustered on the outside edges of both lungs. At the time of this writing, there is no known treatment proven to directly attack this particular type of pneumonia. “The best treatment we have is supportive care,” ER physician Aimee Moulin told the Los Angeles Times.

COVID-19 can cause your body to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome

Speaking with The New York Times, Amy Compton-Phillips, chief clinical officer for the Providence Health System, explained the dangers COVID-19 poses for the air sacs, or alveoli. “If you get swelling there, it makes it that much more difficult for oxygen to swim across the mucous membrane,” she told the publication. According to health professionals, this will likely cause the lungs to fill with fluid, resulting in COVID-19-related pneumonia

While doctors will do everything in their power to keep your body functioning — such as placing you on a ventilator so you can rest while the machine does the breathing for you — the worst case scenario could mean the development of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

According to the Mayo Clinic, ARDS is characterized by severe shortness of breath, labored breathing, and low blood pressure. It alone is a dangerous condition with a death rate around 30 to 40 percent, but deaths associated with COVID-19-related ARDS range over 50 percent, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

When your body is infected with COVID-19, your fever may cause you to experience hallucinations

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fever is the most common symptom among people with COVID-19. As noted by the WHO, 87.9 percent of 55,924 laboratory-confirmed cases reported fever, which, according to the CDC, is classified as a body temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and above. 

While most every person has experienced a fever at some point in their life, fevers associated with COVID-19 can reportedly become quite severe. Speaking with CBS News, one COVID-19 patient said the fever she experienced with the disease was unlike any fever she’d experienced before. “The fever is so high that you hallucinate,” the patient revealed. 

One of the many celebs who have tested positive for coronavirus, CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo, revealed his own experience with a COVID-19 fever, which he revealed on an April 2020 episode of his show, Cuomo Prime Time (via CBS News). Telling viewers his fever had spiked to 103 during the night, Cuomo said, “I’m telling you, I was hallucinating. My dad was talking to me. I was seeing people from college, people I haven’t seen in forever.”

When you get COVID-19, your body's immune system could turn against you

According to studies by researchers in China, many deaths thought to be caused by COVID-19 were actually seemingly due to the patients’ own immune systems inadvertently working against them. 

As noted by WebMD, your immune system is supposed to protect your body from harmful germs and prevent illnesses. However, sometimes your body’s immune system can get caught up in trying to fight an illness and overreact. Doctors call this phenomenon a “cytokine storm” and say it often does more damage than the actual invader it’s trying to demolish. According to The Scripps Research Institute (via ScienceDaily), a cytokine storm is “an overproduction of immune cells and their activating compounds,” which can lead to inflammation and respiratory distress.

Pavan Bhatraju, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, told NPR that some COVID-19 patients who were expected to make a recovery from the illness had been taking turns for the worse — and doctors suspect cytokine storms to be the reason why. Some doctors have started to treat patients with drugs to counteract these storms and, as the publication revealed, “they say that the approach appears to be helping.”

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