How COVID-19 damages the lungs

May 05, 2020

Wellness During COVID-19 Lungs and Breathing
covid lung infection graphic

While many symptoms of the COVID-19 virus are similar to influenza, those who become infected with the coronavirus are more likely to suffer lung complications than they would with the flu.

The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic; 15 percent are considered severe, requiring oxygen and 5 percent are critical infections, requiring ventilation. 

“COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, so the lungs are the organ most affected,” says Vikas Pathak, M.D., pulmonologist with Riverside Health System. “We’re still learning about how this new virus affects the lungs. Depending on the severity of the disease, patients can experience shortness of breath all the way to respiratory failure. Early treatment is really important to limit the disease progression.” 

Strain on lungs 

In the beginning stages of COVID-19, infectious cells invade the lungs and attack cells that protect the lining of the airway. These airway cells are supposed to catch and clear out particles like pollen and viruses. When they don’t work correctly, lungs can become flooded with debris and fluid, causing people to cough to try to clear the lungs and, later, potentially develop pneumonia and shortness of breath.

“Pneumonia causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs, known as alveoli, to become inflamed and fill with fluid,” Dr. Pathak says. “This makes it harder for people to breathe and reduces the lung’s ability to get oxygen into the bloodstream.”  

About 80 percent of those who tested positive for the coronavirus did not develop pneumonia or had a mild case of it, according to a Chinese study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Those with more critical cases of COVID-19 can develop pneumonia in both lungs. 

In the most severe cases, people can experience respiratory failure, known as acute respiratory distress syndrome. People with ARDS struggle to breathe and can appear blueish from a lack of oxygen. Those who cannot breathe effectively will need a ventilator. 

What if I have asthma or another lung condition? 

People with moderate or severe asthma or other chronic lung conditions are at a higher risk of developing more serious COVID-19 complications, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. 

By taking precautions, such as hand-washing frequently for 20 seconds, practicing social distancing when you need to go out and disinfecting high-touch objects at home, you can better protect yourself. Those most concerned should enlist the help of neighbors, friends or family to do errands if they feel unsafe going out. 

It’s important to have your medication on hand and do your best to manage your condition. 

Are there lasting effects on lungs? 

Doctors believe people with mild cases won’t experience long-term effects. 

In a study by the Radiological Society of North America that reviewed CT scans of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, those who developed pneumonia had the most severe lung condition 10 days after their symptoms began. But by 14 days, the CT scans showed the patients to be improving, showing clinical proof of a recovery. 

Those recuperating after pneumonia may feel tired and short of breath for a while. Recovery could last from six weeks to months, according to the WHO. Some people will have scarring on the lungs and reduced lung capacity, but doctors aren’t sure how long this will last.

The American Lung Association says long-term data for those who experience more severe cases will take years to gather since it’s a new disease.  

Questions about COVID-19? Please visit our coronavirus resources on Navigating COVID-19.

Related Articles

View All Posts
Wellness During COVID-19

Getting Vaccinated or Boosted? CDC Recommends Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 Vaccines

January 18, 2022
Learn More African American Woman in a blue shirt holding up her sleeve
Wellness During COVID-19 Emergency +1 More

I Think I Have COVID Symptoms: What Should I Do?

January 17, 2022
Learn More man holding his head at home sick
Wellness During COVID-19

I Live with Someone who Has Tested Positive for COVID-19; What Should I Do?

January 17, 2022
Learn More serious mid adult man cleans a conference table in his office while wearing a protective face mask