UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECT OF CORONAVIRUS ON THE LUNGS
First, the coronavirus infects the respiratory tract and the lung cells especially. The degree of infection varies from one person to another. In other words, some people will experience minimal consequences with hardly any symptoms while for others the outcome will be serious and at times fatal.
The coronavius disease is known as COVID-19.
This article is meant to explain what happens to people's lungs when they get coronavirus and, in severe cases, how it may compromise the body's oxygenation and its ability to rid itself of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released by the cells.
Lack of oxygen and its consequences
We are all aware that a lack of oxygen in our bloodstream alters the functioning of our body's organs. Some of those damages may be irreversible and cause death.
The consequences of an accumulation of carbon dioxide
An accumulation of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream poisons our organs and acidifies our blood, so to say.
The respiratory function of the lung
Understamding the possible consequences of being infected with the coronavirus, COVID-19, calls for a thorough review of the respiratory function of the lung.
Understanding the structure of the lungs
The lungs are a pair of spongy organs. They are made up of a multitude of microscopic air sacs called alveoli. There are over 600 millions of them inside the lungs.
What is an alveolus?
A pulmonary alveolus has a 0.2 mm diameter. The alveolar walls are lined with a very thin layer of cells. The pulmonary capillaries cover all the alveoli.
A pulmonary alveolus is a cup-shaped cavity found in the lung. Its outside surface is covered with capillaries; its inside surface is lined with thin pulmonary cells called pneumocytes. A microscopic "sheet" separates the pulmonary capillaries from the pneumocytes. This structure allows an extremely efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with the blood.
The pulmonary cells, the pneumocytes, are the primary targets of infection
The primary targets of the coronavirus are the pneumocytes; with its tiny tentacles, the virus grips the surface of the pneumocytes and invades them. Once inside, the virus takes control over the cell's functions.
A cell is much like a factory. It is made up of all the elements that are required when building various proteins of the human body.
Genetic material and the coronavirus
So, the virus is now inside the cell it infected with the genetic material needed to create a limitless number of viruses.
The cell is industrious and soon after overflows with new viruses, burst open and the viruses are free to migrate and invade other cells.
The replication carries on.
An intruder in the house!
When the pneumocytes are infected, the body feels that something is wrong... an intruder is detected!
The battle against inflammation begins
The body works to fight off inflammation. The antibodies arrive on the premises to absorb and destroy the viruses. The viruses are in excess and invade more cells. The inflammation appears.
The human body does not have adequate immunity or a sufficient amount of antibodies to quickly win the battle.
The fight will last a long time and will not be effective. Meanwhile, the inflammation may increase.
The passage become difficult for oxygen and carbon dioxide
Picture a sprained ankle. The ankle is so badly swollen that it is hard to see its normal shape.
Now imagine a similar situation in the case of the microscopic layer that is set between the pulmonary cells and the capillaries. The oxygen and the carbon dioxide used to go easily through that microscopic separation and now both the air and blood have to pass through a thicker surface. This has become an insurmountable obstacle, a real wall.
The patient needs air, he is suffocating. He is in respiratory distress, breathing is harder and tiredness sets in. More oxygen is needed, and a ventilator is indispensable in certain cases.
Breathing may become so difficult that it is a real struggle for the patient. He feels exhausted, his condition becomes critical.
A ventilator, a life support treatment, helps the patient breathe, improves his oxygenation, and allows him to rest. This machine blows oxygen into the lungs and the body and helps keep the alveoli wide open. It is removed once the patient's lungs are able to regain function.
A ventilator has its limitations, it does not replace the lungs. In a case where the sickness is so severe that the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchanges are no longer possible, hypoxemia and a carbon dioxide accumulation set in and compromise the patient's normal life functions; death is inevitable.
Prevention is the mother of all treatments
It is true that the majority of the COVID-19 victims will recover from it without major sequels. Some patients, however, will require extensive care, support from a ventilator, etc., and others will die.
The best treatment is and remains prevention:
- sneeze and cough into your elbow
- wash your hands often with soap
- follow the rule of social distancing
- at best, stay home.
Do the maths
When a COVID-19 victim contaminates 2 people, and those infect 2 more individuals, and so on... after 10 such contaminations, that first person will have spread the disease to 1,024 other persons. The consequence is even worse if the actual mortality rate is at 3%, it is equivalent to 30 deaths.
Keep your distance and comply with the basic social and hygienic measures in place. Make sure the people around you observe them as well.