Effects on Lungs | What You Need to Know

The virus is known to affect the respiratory system in many ways and across several levels of severity. This can depend on a person’s immune system and age with symptoms ranging from mild to critical. Below we go over these short and long-term effects.

Short & Long Term Effects

According to many experts, the expected recovery time appears to be roughly two weeks for a mild infection and as much as three to six weeks for severe disease. With most viruses, this depends on a patient’s pre-existing condition and age to determine the severity.

While the most common symptoms in hospitalized patients were dyspnea (shortness of breath), fatigue, chest & joint pain; there have been reports of stubborn severe illness with multiple weeks of fevers and pneumonia. This has mainly been attributed to patients that have had their immune system suppressed and its ability to fight infections and other diseases.

With milder infections, unfortunately, patients can still have prolonged symptoms. The prolonged symptoms can consist of cough, fatigue, and sometimes chills or fevers to those with previous minor infections.  

Doctor examining lung x-ray
Lungs are in Danger during the Pandemic

Physiological Changes In Lung Structure and Function

The big issue is with the gas exchange in the alveolus (any of the tiny air sacs of the lungs which allow for rapid gaseous exchange). Typically, there is a tight connection between the type 1 cells known as the alveolar epithelium and the capillary. The virus actually infects the AT2 cells by killing them and flooding the alveolus. On top of that, there is evidence for micro thrombosis. This may block the vascular side.

Pneumonia is defined as inflammation and fluid in the lungs which makes it difficult to breathe. This can lead to patients experiencing fevers, coughs, and shortness of breath. An even more severe version of Pneumonia is what is known as ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome), which can require significant treatment that includes the use of oxygen therapies. This consists of both mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This is a lung bypass machine that oxygenates the blood. If this type of severity comes to life then it can lead to a longer-lasting effect of scarring on the lungs (known as fibrosis). 

Can Lung Damage From The Virus Be Reversed?

The most current treatments are only effective in reducing the amount of initial damage. Depending on the severity of respiratory damage and inflammation, patients can see improvement in their lung function. Comparable to having pneumonia, over a period of time patients’ lung function can recover. There have been studies that track patients after developing pulmonary fibrosis and show that pulmonary lesions diminished primarily in the first year after recovery. Unfortunately, in the case of severe inflammation, the development of pulmonary fibrosis is the biggest challenge. The main cause of pulmonary fibrosis is chronic inflammation and may lead to epithelial damage and fibroblast activation. Studies are continually being made to see any other reversal ways that lung damage can be reversed. 

Young Woman Vaping
Vaping Adds to Susceptibility

Does Vaping or Smoking E-Cigarettes Give You a Higher Risk of Getting Infected?

In some recent studies of ages 13-24, a comparison was made with non-users to vaping or e-cigarette users. In short, the result of the study was that the e-cigarette/vaping users were found to be five times more likely to test positive. In addition to this study, patients that were either underweight or overweight were more than two and a half times at greater risk of testing positive. 

Can You Get Infected More Than Once?

Currently, it is unclear how long naturally acquired immunity lasts after the initial infection. There are reports of patients becoming reinfected, but the severity of the next infection may be less than the initial. Due to the current vaccinations underway, participants are generating neutralizing antibodies and with every patient, we are able to gather that much more information regarding the immune response to infection. 

Conclusion

With all of the many issues surrounding this pandemic, sometimes we can forget about the intense harm that it can do to our lungs. Whether it be a pre-existing condition, age, over or underweight, or even e-cigarettes, knowing the short and long-term effects and how you can combat them are such important tools to know.