What does the coronavirus do to your body? Everything to know about the infection process
Dr. Martin S. Hirsch, senior physician in the Infectious Diseases Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, said there’s still a lot to learn but experts suspect the virus may act similarly to SARS-CoV from 13 years ago.
“It’s a respiratory virus and thus it enters through the respiratory tract, we think primarily through the nose,” he said.
“Also get in through the eyes and mouth because that’s how other respiratory viruses behave.”
When the virus enters the body, it begins to attack.
Fever, cough and other COVID-19 symptoms, It will take 2 to 14 days for a person to develop symptoms after initial exposure to the virus, Hirsch said. The average is about five days.
Once inside the body, it begins infecting epithelial cells in the lining of the lung. A protein on the receptors of the virus can attach to a host cell’s receptors and penetrate the cell. Inside the host cell, the virus begins to replicate until it kills the cell.
This first takes place in the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, larynx and bronchi. The patient begins to experience mild version of symptoms: dry cough, shortness of breath, fever and headache and muscle pain and tiredness, comparable to the flu.
Dr. Pragya Dhaubhadel and Dr. Amit Munshi Sharma, infectious disease specialists at Geisinger, say some patients have reported gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea and diarrhea, however it’s relatively uncommon.
Symptoms become more severe once the infection starts making its way to the lower respiratory tract.The 13.8% of severe cases and 6.1% critical cases are due to the virus trekking down the windpipe and entering the lower respiratory tract, where it seems to prefer growing.
“The lungs are the major target,” As the virus continues to replicate and journeys further down the windpipe and into the lung, it can cause more respiratory problems like bronchitis and pneumonia, according to Dr. Raphael Viscidi, infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Pneumonia is characterized by shortness of breath combined with a cough and affects tiny air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, Viscidi said. The alveoli are where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.
When pneumonia occurs, the thin layer of alveolar cells is damaged by the virus. The body reacts by sending immune cells to the lung to fight it off.
“And that results in the linings becoming thicker than normal,” he said. “As they thicken more and more, they essentially choke off the little air pocket, which is what you need to get the oxygen to your blood.”
It’s a war between the host response and the virus,” Hirsch said. “Depending who wins this war we have either good outcomes where patients recover or bad outcomes where they don’t.”
Restricting oxygen to the bloodstream deprives other major organs of oxygen including the liver, kidney and brain. In a small number of severe cases that can develop into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which requires a patient be placed on a ventilator to supply oxygen.
However, if too much of the lung is damaged and not enough oxygen is supplied to the rest of the body, respiratory failure could lead to organ failure and death.
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