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How COVID-19 Damages the Lungs

Disclaimer: Not medical or professional advice. Always seek the advice of your physician.

Pneumonia Is the Most Common Complication of COVID-19

The COVID-19 epidemic is starting to slow down. More and more people who are vaccinated will be protected from the virus. But it does not mean that COVID-19 is no longer dangerous. To date, physicians worldwide face numerous cases when infected people experience sharp health deterioration against the background of mild or barely noticeable symptoms. And sometimes it leads to death. Pneumonia, which causes substantial changes in the lungs, is one of the main reasons for this phenomenon.

Pneumonia is a form of acute respiratory infection that affects all structural elements of the lung tissue. Pneumonia is caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The development of pneumonia is dangerous not only in the case of COVID-19 but also for the general state of health. This condition is among the top ten diseases leading to the death of patients, even in the most developed countries.
Any lung inflammation is unpleasant. COVID-19 pneumonia is even more unpleasant for several reasons.

  • It is still under-researched — neither scientists nor physicians cannot specify the exact consequences for the organism in the future.
  • The treatment for COVID-19 pneumonia is another big experiment.

Who Is at Risk of Developing COVID-19 Pneumonia?

  • people aged 65 or over
  • people with chronic respiratory diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, interstitial lung disease)
  • people with diabetes
  • people with chronic diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys
  • overweight people
  • people with a weakened immune system (specialty medication, cancer, HIV, after organ transplantation)

Lung Damage Mechanisms Caused by COVID-19

COVID-19 pneumonia is more pneumonitis rather than the usual type of pneumonia. When COVID-19 reaches the lungs, it collects in the lower parts of the lungs affecting sensitive alveoli. The inflammatory process in the alveoli destroys surface substances, which prevent the walls of the alveoli from sticking together during exhalation. It results in the disruption of gas exchange - the main function of the lungs. Besides, patients start to experience shortness of breath, and whole parts of the respiratory tract are excluded from the breathing process.

The damaged lung tissue is replaced by rigid connective tissue, which cannot participate in breathing. The process of lung involvement is universal and follows a certain scheme.

  • Inflammation starts in the respiratory system; the vessels become more permeable. This promotes the spread of the virus further through the body.
  • The process of ventilation and the blood supply becomes disrupted, and fluid accumulates in the alveoli.
  • Microthrombi begin to form in the lungs.
  • The level of oxygen in the blood declines and gas exchange decreases.
  • It leads to edema of the bronchial tree due to an outflow failure.
  • It develops acute respiratory distress syndrome and the progression of pneumonia.

Symptoms of COVID-19 Pneumonia 

Pneumonia frequently occurs after a period of mild onset with the following signs.

  • a rise in body temperature up to 100,4 °F
  • sore throat
  • dry cough
  • loss of smell and taste
  • headaches, severe weakness

This condition lasts from 2 to 8 days, and the symptoms are getting worse.

  • the temperature rises to 104 °F. It gets difficult to reduce it completely
  • chest pain when breathing, coughing
  • there is little or no sputum during coughing
  • severe weakness, excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath. It is not possible to take a full breath
  • breathing difficulty

What Is the Difference Between COVID-19 Pneumonia and Chronic Pneumonia?

Difficulty breathing is the main difference between COVID-19 pneumonia and other types of lung inflammation. Coronavirus pneumonia can last for a long time with minor symptoms. At the same time, it is precisely the opposite in the case of regular pneumonia. The fundamental characteristic of COVID-19 is that the first clinical manifestations are not detected at an early stage of the disease. It becomes evident when there is already extensive lung involvement.

Another difference is that patients who have undergone the regular type of pneumonia can fully recover in most cases. However, it is too early to conclude final rehabilitation after COVID-19 pneumonia. Especially in cases that have serious complications.

Stages of Lung Involvement in COVID-19 Pneumonia

Specialists identified the stages of lung damage using chest X-ray findings together with the patient's complaints. The stages represent the patient's state of health and his prognosis for recovery.

  • Stage I: less than 5% of lung involvement. It indicates a relatively mild course of the disease and a favorable prognosis.
  • Stage II: 5%–25% involvement. Blood oxygen saturation is more than 95%. You need to see a physician and start treatment. Older adults have an increased risk of developing a severe form of the disease.
  • Stage III: 25%–49% involvement. There is a high chance of recovery if you seek medical help and treatment on time. This stage is also characterized by hyperthermia and decreased saturation. Treatment should be carried out under stationary conditions.
  • Stage IV: 50%–75% involvement. The pathological process is spread over a large area of ​​lung tissue. Therefore, the prognosis is relatively favorable. Massive lung involvement promotes the development of pulmonary fibrosis and loss of lung elasticity.
  • Stage V: more than 75% involvement. Physicians give a relatively unfavorable prognosis. Although, the outcome of the disease depends on the patient’s location. It is extremely difficult to recover from such serious damage to the respiratory system at home, while there are high chances of recovery at the hospital. The disease provokes pneumosclerosis, an acute shortage of oxygen in the blood. Severe patients are referred to the intensive care unit. The sickest of the patients are put into a medically induced coma before being placed on a ventilator.

When to See a Physician?

Seek medical care if you notice any of the following signs.

  • shortness of breath
  • fever for several days
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • persistent pain and pressure in your chest
  • heart palpitations
  • clouding of consciousness
  • bluish color of lips, face, or nails
  • constant sleepiness and difficulty waking up

Complications of COVID-19 Pneumonia

COVID-19, which causes pneumonia, does not stop its destructive effect. The pathological process provokes.

Acute Respiratory Failure

  • blue discoloration of the nasolabial region
  • intercostal muscles are involved in the breathing process
  • specific body position — a person tries to lean on his hands to make it easier to breathe
  • persistent drowsiness
  • panic attacks, agitation

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome

  • shortness of breath
  • increased rate of breathing
  • chest discomfort, pain
  • decreased level of saturation (blood oxygen saturation)
  • crepitus — the characteristic, crackling sound or sensation in the lungs
  • fever
  • foamy sputum when coughing (rarely)

Cytokine Storm

Cytokine storm is a process when the immune system responds inadequately to the cells and tissues of its own body. The immune system starts to attack viral cells along with healthy ones. As a result, it affects a part of the lungs as well as other organs. In most cases, it complicates the function of the heart, brain, and kidneys.

Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 Pneumonia

The treatment for COVID-19 pneumonia and lowering the severity of symptoms do not imply complete recovery from this disease. It has a negative impact on health. The consequences of the disease can include.

  • loss of smell
  • changed sense of taste
  • inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis)
  • thickening of the lung tissue (pulmonary fibrosis)
  • heart failure
  • inflammation of the intestinal mucosa
  • renal failure

How to Protect Your Lungs from Pneumonia?

Physicians recommend that the following actions should be taken to prevent lung involvement.

  • You should have the pneumococcal vaccine — it prevents several lung bacteria for 5 to 10 years.
  • Monitor the air humidity — ideal in-home humidity levels should hover around 40-45%. Humidified air prevents the formation of mucous plugs in the bronchi and lung infections.
  • From the first day of COVID-19 symptoms, you should drink lots of fluids to relieve intoxication, maintain a low viscosity, and make it easier for sputum to pass from the bronchi and mucus from the nose.
  • Regular physical activity — move more and do simple exercises.

The Recovery of Lung Function after Pneumonia

The process of rehabilitation can take more than one month, especially in the case of mechanical ventilation. As COVID-19 is still a little-known virus, recovery should be carried out strictly according to the recommendations of the attending physician. Otherwise, you can harm your health.

What can be done?

  • Breathing gymnastics at least 3-4 times a day (your physician will tell you more about it).
  • Chest percussion treatment. After a light chest and back massage, patting and tapping movements should start at the bottom of the back, moving upward. When tapping, make sure that the person’s chest is lower than his hips.
  • Blowing up balloons. The effect is noticeable after 2-3 weeks of regular exercise. This routine will steadily increase lung capacity and improve pulmonary ventilation.
  • Complete and balanced nutrition. The diet should include light yet filling dishes rich in vitamins, vegetables, and animal fats.
  • Walking outside to get fresh air. Daily walks after pneumonia should last at least 40 minutes.

COVID-19 is an insidious infection. COVID-19 pneumonia can be asymptomatic but cause serious consequences. Timely diagnosis, a responsible attitude towards treatment, and a high-quality recovery process will help to avoid negative effects. It is vital not to self-medicate but to seek medical help. In the case of COVID-19 pneumonia, every day counts as it influences the outcome of the disease. 

Learn More About COVID-19

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