This Is What COVID-19 Can Do To Your Lungs

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Hands holding a chest x-ray, close-up
Scary Mommy and Caspar Benson/Getty

Okay, folks. Here’s the good news: Since the world is consumed with COVID-19 and everyone from California to Switzerland is desperate for this pandemic to be over, the amount of medical professionals and academics devoting themselves to researching this virus continues to grow. We know more about COVID-19 than we did last week, and we’ll know more in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Unfortunately, however, society continues to be plagued with anti-science naysayers, protesters demanding the reopening of America, and conspiracy theorists spreading false rumors about what really causes the coronavirus. Well, here’s another piece of info they aren’t going to want to hear (but may suffer from as they ignore safety guidelines)—medical researchers are now learning that COVID-19 can have long-term effects on the patient’s lung health. That means even once you’re recovered and back to work and living your normal life, it could take a long time for your lungs to fully heal.

This is just one of the many reasons why downplaying this pandemic and continuing to claim it’s “not a big deal” is dangerous. We don’t know yet what this virus truly does to the body long-term, so the best we can do is take every precaution now.

If you’ve never had a major respiratory illness, you might not know the fearful experience of being unable to breathe properly. If you don’t know the life and struggles of an asthmatic, you can’t possibly understand the terror that rips through your body when you’re wheezing and can’t seem to find oxygen.

I know what it feels like. So does my son. For those reasons (among a million others) we’ve been under complete quarantine since March 13. Neither he nor I have left our home other than the occasional neighborhood walk or jog. We haven’t seen anyone besides our immediate family who lives with us, been in the car, or inside another building—not even to the grocery store. We know fresh air is good for our lungs, so we get it as much as we can—in our yard. But we also know how it feels when our lungs aren’t working properly, and with COVID-19 being a respiratory illness, we aren’t taking any chances.

Because as a person dependent on an inhaler, who’s had pleurisy twice and multiple bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, and as a mom with a son who’s been rushed to the ER for breathing treatments on more than one occasion, who also needs an inhaler, the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness terrifies me.

So I did my homework and found out some facts about how, exactly, this illness affects the lungs, and why we are hearing so much about ventilators and respirators right now.


First of all, according to Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D., M.H.S., a lung disease expert at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, this virus can lead to pneumonia and, in the most severe cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. Also, another possible complication of COVID-19 is sepsis, which can cause lasting harm to the lungs and other organs.

Maybe you’ve had pneumonia, so you’re not too worried, as you’ve never had to be on a ventilator. The thing is, COVID-19 tends to cause a severe type of pneumonia—a type that “takes hold in both lungs,” Dr. Galiatsatos explains. “Air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, limiting their ability to take in oxygen and causing shortness of breath, cough, and other symptoms.” This isn’t regular old pneumonia.

And as far as those other scary words—ARDS and sepsis—they can end up having long-term effects too, even if the patient recovers. ARDS, Dr. Galiatsatos says, may lead to pulmonary scarring. This is because unlike pneumonia, which is diagnosed when air sacs fill with fluid, ARDS leads to long-term damage in the walls of those air sacs. That’s a problem, because those walls are where oxygen passes into our red blood cells.

In healthy lungs, those walls are thin, allowing oxygen to pass through freely. But the damage caused by COVID-19 actually ends up thickening those walls, lung pathologist Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, MD explains in an article for the Cleveland Clinic. “The thicker this wall gets, the harder it is to transfer oxygen, the more you feel short of breath, and the more and more you start moving towards severe illness and possibly death,” he says bluntly.

Sepsis, which occurs when an infection reaches the bloodstream, leads to permanent tissue damage in the body. “Lungs, heart and other body systems work together like instruments in an orchestra,” Dr. Galiatsatos explains. “In sepsis, the cooperation between the organs falls apart. Entire organ systems can start to shut down, one after another, including the lungs and heart.”

So if you get the coronavirus and do recover, understand that you may not bounce back as quickly as you might after other illnesses, because lung damage takes a while to heal. “After a serious case of COVID-19, a patient’s lungs can recover, but not overnight,” Dr. Galiatsatos says. “Recovery from lung damage takes time. There’s the initial injury to the lungs, followed by scarring. Over time, the tissue heals, but it can take three months to a year or more for a person’s lung function to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.”

That means that patients could have prolonged cough, tiredness, and the inability to exercise long after they’ve seemingly recovered from their other symptoms.

And that means COVID-19 will be impacting the world for a long time. “Once the pandemic is over, there will be a group of patients with new health needs: the survivors. Doctors, respiratory therapists and other health care providers will need to help these patients recover their lung function as much as possible,” predicts Dr. Galiatsatos.

See why we need to take this so seriously? Why this is bigger than “just another flu”? Why we need to wear masks, practice social distancing, stay home, and stop saying “everyone is overreacting”?

Regular people, like you and me, are getting COVID-19, then pneumonia, then sepsis, and then they’re gone. Or they recover, but it takes months, maybe even a year to feel like themselves again.

Your dad, who was just playing golf last month, could be next. Your child’s teacher who always puts stars on his math tests and helps him put a Band-Aid on his knee when he falls on recess, could be next. I could be next. So could you.

I know how it feels when you can’t breathe. I know how it feels to watch your child struggle to breathe. And I wouldn’t wish that terror on anyone. I implore you—please take this seriously. Please don’t be cocky and think you’re above this virus, or somehow immune. Please take all the precautions you can, follow stay-at-home orders, wear a mask if you have one, wash your hands, and take care of your lungs. You only get two. And they’re kind of important.

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