Initially, when the news of a new type of coronavirus resulting in pneumonia-like symptoms started making the headlines in early 2020, there was a lot of fear and panic all over the world because the speed of its transmission and fatality rate was not known. It was believed to have spread from a wet market in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Soon it reached almost all the countries around the globe.
This new coronavirus was later officially named as SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), and the disease caused by this virus in humans was named COVID-19 (coronavirus disease - 2019).
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, and it spreads through respiratory droplets. The virus enters the body through the mouth, nose, or eyes, and reaches the lungs. This disease results in breathing problems that can range from mild to critical. People with a pre-existing lung condition, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are more likely to experience critical symptoms. Patient’s recovery from COVID-19 caused pneumonia completely depends on how efficiently care was taken and how promptly it was treated.
How Does COVID-19 Affect Your Lungs?
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters the body, it penetrates healthy cells that line the nose, mouth, or eyes (mucous membrane). The virus then uses these healthy cells to multiply and give rise to new viruses. These new viruses then infect adjacent cells. The SARS-CoV-2 virus after entering the human body binds to the ACE-2 receptors (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2). These receptors are present in the cells of the lungs, intestines, brain, blood vessels, kidneys, etc. The spike protein of the virus on its surface binds to the ACE-2 receptors and infects the host cells. Subsequent cytokine storms are induced along with a series of severe immune responses.
Your respiratory tract starts with your nose and runs down to form the trachea (windpipe), which splits into two bronchi. Each bronchus (singular) then branches out to form tiny bronchioles in the lungs. These bronchioles end in tiny air sacs called alveoli, which help in the exchange of oxygen in the air inhaled with the carbon dioxide produced by the cell in the body.
As the entire respiratory system is connected, the virus can enter and progressively infect the entire tract and can even reach the alveoli. It inflames and irritates the lining of the respiratory tract as it reaches deeper into the lungs. The effects on the body are similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Why Are the Symptoms Mild for Some and Fatal for Others?
The body does not let the virus travel easily from the upper respiratory tract to the lower. The immune system fights back. Depending on the age, comorbid conditions, and the viral load in the body, the symptoms can be:
Mild to Moderate - Almost 80 % of infected patients have been reported to have mild or moderate symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, and fever. The infection can reach the alveoli and cause pneumonia, but usually, only one part of the lung is affected.
Severe - In around 14 to 15 % of the cases, the infection spreads in both the lungs. The swelling of the membrane lining the respiratory tract becomes worse, and the lungs get filled with fluid. As the air sacs in the lungs get filled with mucus, debris, and inflammatory cells that are trying to fight off the infection, pneumonia worsens. With alveoli compromised, there is a lack of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the body, and the patient has breathing difficulties and shortness of breath.
Critical - Only in about 5 % of total cases, the walls of the alveoli get damaged due to the infection. As the infection spreads, the lungs get filled with fluid and the body tries to fight off the infection, which results in severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Most patients need a ventilator to help them breathe.
How to Prevent Critical Symptoms of COVID-19?
The lungs fight hard to stop the spread of the virus, but if your lungs are not healthy, to begin with, there is nothing much the immune system can do to protect you. If you improve your respiratory health by changing a few lifestyle factors, the chances of serious illness are considerably lowered in case you get infected. The following are some ways you can keep your lungs healthy and ready to fight COVID-19:
1) Quit Smoking:
This is the most important and effective way to improve your respiratory health. It includes smoking cigarettes, marijuana, and vaping. Smoking can irritate the airway and can permanently destroy the alveoli, which is essential for oxygen exchange. The small particles present in the smoke get stuck in the lungs, which can also result in permanent lung damage.
2)Avoid Inhaling Fumes:
The fine particles present in fumes generated by burning wood can build up in your air passages, resulting in scarring. These scars make the bronchioles less elastic and result in breathing problems. So, avoid sitting near the fireplace or a bonfire. The same side effects can be seen by lighting a candle. Most candles contain metal in their wicks, which get vaporized, enter the lungs, and damage them.
3) Stay Away From Allergens:
Pollens, indoor dust, and other allergens can result in respiratory allergies and even asthma. The tiny hair in your nostrils tries to prevent most allergens from entering your respiratory tract. But if you are allergic to those, the inner nose tissue swells and you have a runny and blocked nose, which makes you breathe through your mouth. The mouth, unlike your nose, does not filter the air that reaches your lungs.
So to prevent unfiltered air reaching your lungs and damaging them, use air filters and purifiers, take medicines to manage allergies, regularly clean the filters in your air conditioners, and wash your hands regularly.
You can improve your ability to breathe or respiratory capacity with the help of various exercises. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, or if you are bed-ridden, the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs deflate or collapse, which is called atelectasis. To keep these sacs inflated and its walls from actively exchanging oxygen, you need to breathe against resistance.
Cardio exercises make you breathe against resistance, which keeps the alveoli inflated and open. You can also do Yoga, stretching, and breathing exercises. Exercise daily and help your lungs perform to their maximum capacity, which gives them a better chance to fight off COVID-19.
Some of the regular exercises include -
- Brisk walking.
- Jogging or running.
- Jumping rope.
- Resistance training (with hand weights or bands).
5) Get Rid of Mucus and Phlegm:
Mucus or phlegm is produced in the respiratory tract to capture the bacteria, virus, or allergens. In addition to that, the tiny hair (cilia) lining the respiratory tract also keeps these threats away. Generally, we swallow and clear the mucus that is produced, but if there is an allergen in the tract, then the mucus production is too much for us to be able to clear, which creates the ideal environment for the virus to multiply. This excess mucus also blocks and inflames the airways, making breathing difficult.
In the right amount, mucus is beneficial, but too much might be a problem. To get rid of this excess mucus, you can try a saline nasal spray, use anti-inflammatory inhalers, and do steam inhalation.
6) Flu Shots:
Frequent respiratory infections (cold, flu, pneumonia) can injure and damage your airway. Talk to your doctor and get annual flu vaccines and pneumonia vaccines.
7) Eat More Fruits and Vegetables:
According to a study, consuming fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants and flavonoids, such as apples, blueberries, bananas, and tomatoes, slow down the decline of lung function as the person gets older.
All these factors can strengthen the immune system and improve your body’s ability to fight off the coronavirus, in case you get infected. The above tips will not reduce the chances of you getting infected, but it might lower your chances of critical complications of COVID-19.
Keep your lungs healthy, eat healthily, exercise, wash your hands frequently, maintain social distancing, and be safe!
8) Get the Shot:
Most essential among all is to get vaccinated. Vaccinations are proven to reduce symptoms and mainly complications. Scientists, all over the world, have come up with various efficient vaccines. Thus, make sure to get the vaccinations in your turn to fight back serious complications.
Lung health after a severe respiratory infection like COVID-19 can take some time to restore. However, patients with mild cases of COVID-19 gets completely recovered within a few weeks. Therefore, strengthening your lung capacity can help in the speedy recovery and preventing from having any other serious complications.
Frequently Asked Questions