Pneumonia is a possible complication of COVID-19, which can also be fatal. For more information, read the article now.
COVID-19 is a respiratory viral disease caused by the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). This virus is transmitted directly through inhaling infected respiratory droplets expelled by an infected person or indirectly by touching contaminated surfaces or objects. Infected patients commonly develop symptoms of influenza-like illnesses, such as cough, fever, loss of smell or taste, runny nose, chills, etc. When this virus affects the lungs and results in pneumonia, the patient develops shortness of breath. There have also been reports of concomitant gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in 5 to 10 % of patients. The majority of patients (81 %) do not exhibit any symptoms of the illness (asymptomatic) or show very mild symptoms (paucisymptomatic). Such patients are treated with isolation and drugs to relieve symptoms like Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Other patients (19 %) show significant symptoms due to pneumonia and need hospitalization. Such patients can develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which requires mechanical ventilation.
No vaccines or medicines to prevent or cure COVID-19 have been approved yet. Various studies are ongoing to find a vaccine or antiviral drug effective against the new coronavirus. For now, COVID-19 patients are given symptomatic (relieving specific symptoms) treatment. Patients with severe symptoms are treated with oxygen therapy, intravenous fluids, broad-spectrum antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, and antiviral agents (Remdesivir, Ritonavir, or Lopinavir). Those who develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is the most common cause of mortality, require mechanical ventilation.
Inflammation of the air sacs in the lungs due to infection caused by various viruses, bacteria, and fungi is called pneumonia. Fluid or pus gets collected in these air sacs, resulting in the patient coughing up phlegm. Fever, chills, and shortness of breath are some of the other common symptoms.
Pneumonia is a potentially fatal condition, as it can lead to life-threatening complications in infants, older adults (65 years and older), people with pre-existing chronic illnesses, and immunocompromised individuals. It is the leading cause of death worldwide due to infection in children younger than 5 years of age.
Large respiratory droplets containing the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) enter the upper respiratory tract through the nose or mouth. The virus in these droplets then multiplies and moves through the bronchus and bronchioles (the tubes that branch out from the windpipe) into the lungs. When the virus reaches the lower respiratory tract, it can result in pneumonia.
When a person breathes in, oxygen in the air travels through the bronchus and bronchioles and reaches the alveoli (small sacs of air in the lungs). The exchange of oxygen in the air that is inhaled with the carbon dioxide present in the blood takes place in these alveoli. SARS-CoV-2 can damage these alveoli and the surrounding structures, interfering with oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange. Your body tries to fight off these viruses, resulting in an immune response and collection of inflammatory cells, fluid, and dead cells in the lungs. All these together result in breathing difficulties or shortness of breath seen in critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Based on the severity of the infection and the symptoms, the stages or categories of COVID-19 infection are:
Category 1 - The patient might not show any symptoms but might be contagious. Such patients carry a high risk of spreading the virus.
Category 2 - The patient exhibits mild fever and cough, and sometimes headache and diarrhea. The symptoms are due to viruses present in the upper respiratory tract.
Category 3 - The symptoms are more obvious, and the patient might need to be hospitalized. Prompt and proper management at this stage can prevent death.
Category 4 - The infection has led to pneumonia or ARDS. Such patients have a higher chance of fatality.
The symptoms that are seen in COVID-19 pneumonia and other viral pneumonia might be similar, making it difficult to differentiate the cause. A person showing symptoms of pneumonia has to be tested for COVID-19 or other infections to find the cause. Scientists are trying to determine how COVID-19 pneumonia varies from other types of pneumonia. If they are successful, the new information will immensely help with diagnosis and help doctors understand how the new coronavirus affects the lungs.
A study conducted to compare the clinical features of other types of pneumonia to COVID-19 pneumonia found that COVID-19 pneumonia patients showed:
Both the lungs are affected by pneumonia.
CT scan of the lungs had a characteristic “ground-glass” appearance.
Liver function and other lab tests abnormalities.
The following are the symptoms of COVID-19 pneumonia:
Productive or dry cough.
Dyspnea (shortness of breath).
Coughing and deep breathing results in chest pain.
Emergency medical care is required for patients exhibiting the following symptoms:
Shallow and rapid breathing.
Feeling of pressure or discomfort in the chest.
Bluish discoloration of the face or lips.
A study conducted in China found that 14 % of cases were severe, and only 5 % were critical. The illness in severely and critically infected COVID-19 patients can also lead to COVID-19 ARDS.
ARDS is when fluid builds up in the alveoli present in the lungs. The collected fluid prevents the lungs from filling with sufficient air, which leads to a lack of oxygen in the blood. This lack of oxygen prevents the internal organs from functioning properly.
COVID-19 patients who develop pneumonia can also develop acute respiratory distress syndrome. This makes the patient gasp for air and the need for assisted ventilation to help them breathe. A large number of patients who develop ARDS do not survive. The rate of fatality increases with age and the severity of illness. Patients who do recover from ARDS usually suffer from permanent or long-lasting lung damage.
The people who are at a higher risk for developing COVID-19 pneumonia and other serious complications due to COVID-19 are:
Older adults (65 years and above).
Individuals living in a nursing home or assisted living facilities.
Individuals with underlying health conditions, such as chronic lung diseases, diabetes, asthma, heart diseases, liver disease, and obesity.
Individuals with a weakened immune system like those undergoing cancer treatment, taking steroids, and those infected with HIV.
The presence of the SARS-CoV-2 in the sample collected from the nasal and oral cavity is tested using PCR (polymerase chain reaction). The respiratory sample is collected using a cotton swab. The doctor might also take a chest X-ray or CT scan to see the changes in the lungs of patients suffering from symptoms of pneumonia.
No specific drug is approved by the FDA to be used for COVID-19 pneumonia. Various drugs are under clinical trials as potential therapies. For now, COVID-19 pneumonia treatment aims at managing the symptoms and maintaining proper oxygen levels in the body with the help of oxygen therapy. Ventilators are required for severe cases.
Vaccines that are available for certain types of pneumonia do not protect against the new coronavirus. There is still no vaccine available for this new virus.
The best ways to prevent getting infected with the new coronavirus are:
Social distancing - Avoid contact with people in public places as much as possible. Maintain a safe distance (6 feet) from others.
Do not shake hands with others.
Do not forget to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds.
In case you are sick, stay at home, and avoid going to public places.
Wear a cloth face covering when in public.
If you develop breathing difficulties, make sure you go to the nearest emergency room, as prompt treatment with oxygen therapy will help you breathe until your body fights off the deadly virus. For more information, consult a pulmonologist online.
Last reviewed at:
01 Jul 2020 - 5 min read
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