COVID-19 coronavirus has sickened people in just about every country and is dominating the news and most conversations. But what happens to you and your body if you get infected? Let’s cast aside the misinformation and take a look at what can really happen if you get COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is a variant of the SARS virus that struck the world in 2002 and 2003. SARS affected 29 countries, sickened over 8,400 people and killed 812, according to the World Health Organization. (WHO)
SARS is short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It’s name is both accurate and descriptive of the problems it causes. While COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have the same lethality that SARS had, it is causing more people to get sick over a wider area. It’s also moving across the globe at an astonishing rate.
It’s rate of spread indicates that it is highly contagious. In fact, several studies and research letters now show evidence of both asymptomatic and indirect transmission. (1, 2, 3) This is a shift from the earlier belief that it was transmitted primarily by contact with mucous membranes, either by breathing in airborne droplets or coming in contact with the virus on a surface and then touching the eyes, mouth or nose.
While droplet transmission hasn’t been ruled out, this shift in how we think the virus is transmitted means a change in how we deal with it. It also may help us understand how it could hop continents as easily as it did.
But what happens to you if you get infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus? Should you make peace with God and tell your loved ones all the terrible things you’ve thought and said about them over the years to clear the air before you leave the planet?
Probably not. In fact, skip that stuff until you see how severe it gets. Because the truth is, many people will have no symptoms or very mild symptoms. That fact is part of the asymptomatic spread issue.
A very small number of people will get severe to critical symptoms. These are the people who are likely to wind up in the hospital, likely needing supplemental oxygen or a ventilator to survive. Most of these people will have a previous risk factor. I wrote about those risk factors right here: Death Risk Factors For COVID-19 Coronavirus Identified.
Let’s look first at the symptoms of COVID-19. There are three that you’ve heard repeated on the news a zillion times. They are a cough that continues to worsen, a fever with increasing temperatures and shortness of breath. These will likely appear within 2 to 14 days after you’ve been exposed. (4)
Should you seek medical attention right away? Maybe. If your symptoms are mild, but you want to know for sure if you have COVID-19 so you don’t infect anyone else, then yes. See your doctor and arrange to get tested. Telemedicine is a big help here. You get on a video call with your doc, tell him or her your symptoms and they set you up to get tested.
If you develop what the Centers for Disease Control calls “emergency symptoms,” you should seek medical help right away. These include:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion or inability to arouse (I assume they mean inability to get up and get moving. Otherwise, that’s just unnecessarily risque.)
- Bluish lips or face
That isn’t quite the end of it, though. Other symptoms may be present. According to the WHO’s analysis of 55,000 cases of the “Kung-flu” in China, the symptoms vary widely. (5) Here’s a sampling of their breakdown.
- Fever: 88%
- Dry cough: 68%
- Fatigue: 38%
- Coughing up sputum, or thick phlegm, from the lungs: 33%
- Shortness of breath: 19%
- Bone or joint pain: 15%
- Sore throat: 14%
- Headache: 14%
- Chills: 11%
- Nausea or vomiting: 5%
- Stuffy nose: 5%
- Diarrhea: 4%
- Coughing up blood: 1%
- Swollen eyes: 1%
A lot of those are also symptoms of the common cold or the flu. That’s one reason that isolating this virus is taking so long. So how do you know if you’ve got “the ‘rona,” the flu or just a plain old common cold? The good folks over at WebMD have put together this nifty little chart to help:
There’s considerable symptom crossover, especially between the flu and COVID-19. If you have more than 3-4 of any of those symptoms, talking to a doctor is a very good idea.
If your cough continues to worsen and your fever rises above 102 or 103, call your doctor. If you begin to have respiratory problems, call your doctor. If your symptoms aren’t that bad, but you know you were exposed to someone who has COVID-19, call your doctor. Pretty simple, right?
We know what the symptoms are, but what about the other problems COVID-19 might cause? First, let’s remember that so far, about 80 to 85 percent of cases are mild, with full recovery and no lasting effects reported. (6) Then, let’s remember that most of those who do get severe symptoms, or worse, have underlying comorbidities like diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other conditions.
COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness. As such, the principle site of attack is the lungs and airways. Hence the cough and breathing difficulties. But there is a risk of something much worse.
Because COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, meaning humans have never had to deal with it before, we have no herd immunity to it. Herd immunity is an acquired immunity to a specific pathogen shared by a group of people when a sufficient number of them have either had the disease and survived or been immunized against it some other way.
Because of the lack of herd immunity and COVID-19’s newness, the immune cells of our bodies don’t recognize it. COVID-19 enters the body through the lungs because their cells have a high expression of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2. (ACE2) Both SARS and COVID-19 enter cells via ACE2. (7)
Once the virus is in the lung cells, the immune system responds by sending a large army of immune attack cells to destroy it. There’s a problem, though. These cells, generally referred to as cytokines, can’t recognize the COVID-19 virus. As a result, they begin attacking everything, including healthy lung tissue. Worse, they recruit more immune cells to the blind attack.
This is known as a cytokine storm. In some of the cases where lung damage was noted, either after death or after recovery, this was the cause. More commonly, this process leads to or exacerbates the pneumonia that seems to accompany serious to critical cases and leads to a condition called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS.)
It is possible to have pneumonia and/or ARDS without permanent lung damage, but the presence of a cytokine storm in the lungs considerably increases the risk of permanent tissue damage.
The cytokine storm can cause a sepsis response in the body that can lead to damage to multiple organs and systems. This has been seen in a number of COVID-19 cases.
There is a possibility that the heart and blood vessels may suffer as a result of having the COVID-19 virus. Some of the symptoms being seen include irregular heartbeat, insufficient blood flow to cardiac tissues and low blood pressure requiring medication. There is no indication currently, however, that the heart is directly damaged by the virus. (8)
Your liver and kidneys can take a beating as a result of having the virus. Some people who wound up in the hospital with COVID-19 showed signs of acute kidney damage. (9)
It’s uncertain whether those people were damaged by the virus directly or if the damage was a result of the drug therapies they underwent. It may also have been related to reduced levels of blood oxygen. Research is ongoing.
The question of COVID-19-related liver damage is also still open. When the liver is under stress, it can leak higher levels of liver enzymes into the bloodstream. This isn’t always a sign of a problem, but its relation to COVID-19, when it’s seen in those with the virus, is still unclear. In one recent case, a patient with COVID-19 was seen with serious liver damage, but it was unclear if the virus or the treatment caused the damage. (10)
Before you panic and wrap yourself in plastic and put on a biohazard suit, remember that the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will get through it with mild symptoms or even no noticeable symptoms at all.
As I have written previously, if you do come down with COVID-19 and get symptoms, your life will stink for 7 to 14 days and then you’ll heal. Be smart; if you have symptoms you think are related to COVID-19 or even have symptoms that you’re not sure about, talk to your doctor. Get tested.
If you turn out to be positive, hunker down until it passes. This challenge will pass and the world will return to some version of normal. Until then…
Keep the faith and keep after it!