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What happens to the body when infected with Covid-19

The novel coronavirus enters the body through the nose, mouth or eyes.
Updated 07 Apr, 2020 09:43am

New information about the 2019 novel coronavirus is emerging daily, including regarding what a human body goes through when infected with the virus and how a person feels.

Here, we look at what the body of the person who contracts the virus goes through, based on evidence that researchers have found so far.

In addition, we also share what different people infected with Covid-19 experience, not just physically but also emotionally.

Symptoms and experience

Covid-19 enters the body through the nose, mouth or eyes when you breathe air or touch surfaces contaminated with the virus.

At its earliest stage, it “infects the cells lining your throat, airways and lungs and turns them into ‘coronavirus factories’ that spew out huge numbers of new viruses that go on to infect yet more cells”, according to a report by the BBC.

According to a study on early Covid-19 patients from Wuhan — where the virus is said to have originated from — the most prominent symptoms were fever (experienced by 98.6 per cent), fatigue (69.6pc) and dry cough (59.4pc).

The study further found that 31.2pc of infected people developed shortness of breath, 26.1 pc needed to be admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and 19.6pc developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) — a condition in which one experiences extreme shortness of breath and rapid breathing.

It took five days from the development of the first symptoms, which are usually fever and cough, for those who developed shortness of breath.

Most patients who required hospitalisation needed it after seven days while for those who developed ARDS, it took eight days from the day they first started to experience Covid-19 symptoms.

The study suggests that for patients who end up needing ICU care, it takes around 10 days from when the first symptoms appear.

Furthermore, it indicates that older people and those who already have pre-existing conditions like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are at a much greater risk because of the virus.

Read: Is loss of smell or taste an early sign of coronavirus infection?

Another study, which was based on the first case of the novel coronavirus in the United States, provides us an insight into what a young, non-smoker may go through after contracting the virus.

The study shows that the patient, who had returned to the US from Wuhan, initially developed a fever and cough. On the third day of illness, he also experienced nausea and vomiting.

Three days later, he complained of abdominal discomfort and loss of appetite. On the ninth day, his chest radiograph showed evidence of pneumonia in his left lung and on the 10th day, he required supplemental oxygen. By then, pneumonia had spread to both of his lungs.

Finally, on the 12th day of illness, the patient’s condition started to improve and his appetite returned.

It is pertinent to mention that some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell. Most people (about 80pc, according to the World Health Organization) recover from the disease without needing special treatment.

What it does to the lungs

Professor John Wilson, a respiratory physician and president-elect of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, told The Guardian that almost all serious patients of the coronavirus disease feature pneumonia. He explained that the symptoms begin with the infection “reaching the respiratory tree — the air passages that conduct air between the lungs and the outside".

If the conditions get worse, the infection “goes just past the lining of the airway and goes to the gas exchange units". An infection in these units means they pour out inflammatory material into the air sacs at the bottom of the lungs.

“If the air sacs then become inflamed, Wilson says this causes an ‘outpouring of inflammatory material [fluid and inflammatory cells] into the lungs and we end up with pneumonia’," The Guardian said.

Further degeneration means oxygen is unable to reach the bloodstream which could eventually cause death.

The lungs, however, are not the only organ affected by the virus.

“The infection can spread through the mucous membranes, from the nose down to the rectum,” Dr Amy Compton-Phillips, the chief clinical officer for the Providence Health System, where the first American case discussed earlier was reported, told The New York Times. The virus can affect the gastrointestinal system which causes patients to have symptoms like diarrhea and indigestion, NYT adds.

What do survivors say

“I spent six days and six nights wearing a breathing helmet,” a patient from Italy told The Guardian. “It is something difficult to imagine and understand,” he said, adding: “This experience has changed my life.”

“Mentally … it’s a total shock,” Danielle, ‘Patient 74’ from Israel who had Intragrammed her ordeal told BBC.

“It was really crazy because when it started I was still in a state of shock and panic," she said, adding that her social media documentation of the situation helped her detach from it and cope better.

Read: 'Don't take Covid-19 lightly': KP's first recovered patient advises after returning home

For Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, the executive director of a non-profit organisation, the illness was "tough" and "unbearable".

“The nurses […] treated me like a plague. I sat in the ambulance feeling rejected,” Osowobi, who had returned to Nigeria from the United Kingdom, wrote on Twitter.

About the physical impacts of the virus, some survivors say it is completely different from regular flu or fever. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” American journalist Chris Cuomo told CNN. “I’ve had a fever… but 102, 103, 103-plus that wouldn’t quit. And it was like somebody was beating me like a piñata,” he said, adding that he was shivering so much that he chipped his tooth.

Andy Hardwick, a 51-year-old Facebook user, uploaded a video narrating his ordeal which started with a dry cough and led to tightening of lungs and eventually fever and breathing problems. “I had a raging thirst. My spine hurts, my back hurts, my neck hurts. You don’t want to talk, you get shortness of breath if you move around, and you don’t want to lift your head off a pillow,” he said, still panting.

“Everyone seems to get [coronavirus] different. Some get it mild, some get it very strong, some are hospitalised, and that’s the scary part, not knowing how you are going to be when you get it,” Hardwick's wife Nicola was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

The vast majority of infected people recover from the virus, which is spread by microscopic droplets from coughs or sneezes. For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some severe cases, it can also make breathing difficult.

“It is not an exaggeration if you feel like being in a car crash or you can’t move at all, left or right. And then how quickly it takes hold,” 28-year-old Mark Stubbs told Good Morning Britain. “Couple of days before I was mobile, running, absolutely fine and within three days, you’re unable to breathe unaided, lungs completely taken over, can’t sit up in bed, you know coughing up blood etc. So it is really serious.”

“There were a couple of hours where I was within a whisper of a very dark place and I thought, 'Maybe my time is up',” Stewart Boyle, who thinks he caught the virus at a choir meeting following which a number of others also fell ill with flu-like symptoms, told BBC.

You can read his and other survivors' stories about dealing with Covid-19 here.


Compiled by Ebad Pasha


Header image: Taiwanese army soldiers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant over a road during a drill to prevent community cluster infection of coronavirus in New Taipei City. — AP