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What Getting COVID Does to Your Body

Step by step, the virus replicates inside your body. Here's exactly what will happen. 

The CDC list of coronavirus symptoms includes fever, dry cough, and a new loss of taste or smell, along with other issues—but that doesn't explain what happens to your body when you get COVID. We talked to researchers about what happens to your body when you get COVID, and here's what they said.


First, COVID Enters Your Body

crowded bar seats

"The virus primarily affects the respiratory system and is transferred between humans by airborne mechanisms, like coughing or sneezing, or by contact of contaminated surfaces, doorknobs, etc, with hands and then rubbing the face," says Dr. Jeffrey Langland, Ph.D., an instructor for Medical Microbiology, Immunology, and Concepts in Research. "It attacks the human body in three phases: viral replication, immune hyperactivity and pulmonary destruction"—pulmonary meaning your lungs—says Dr. Monika Stuczen, FIBMS, a Medical Microbiologist and R&D and QC Laboratory Manager at MWE.


In the Beginning, You Might Feel Nothing From COVID

Happy relaxed young woman sitting in her kitchen with a laptop in front of her stretching her arms above her head and looking out of the window with a smile

"At the beginning of infection, people produce a large quantity of the virus," says Stuczen. "The incubation time is between 2 and 14 days with an average of 5 days. During this time infected people do not show any symptoms but they contribute to the spread of the virus without even realizing it. Moreover, it is proved that some people may be asymptomatic but they are still able to infect others."


Once COVID is in Your Body, it Take Over Your Cells


"The virus infects the cells in the respiratory tract, taking over the cells' functions, allowing the virus to replicate and then spread from cell to cell," says Langland. "In mild cases, the body's immune system helps to limit the spread of the virus within the body." That's when a fever may set in, to combat the infection. "In more severe cases, the viruses spread more and can lead to a 'cytokine storm' where the immune system is highly stimulated."


Then You Can't Breathe Due to COVID

Asian woman having difficulty breathing in bedroom at night

"This infection can lead to the problems of breathing difficulties from the bronchials constricting and limiting airflow. You might cough as a result or feel shortness of breath," says Langland.


Depending on Your Health, COVID Could Get Worse—Much Worse

adult male in face mask receiving treatment at hospital suffering respiratory disease lying on bed

"There are three patterns presented with Covid-19," says Stuczen. "It usually begins with mild upper respiratory illness followed by non-life-threatening pneumonia. After about 7 days it can progress to severe pneumonia with acute respiratory distress syndrome when the patient may require life support. In severe pneumonia, lungs are filled with inflammatory material. They are unable to get enough oxygen to the bloodstream, reducing the body's ability to take on oxygen and remove carbon dioxide what in most cases causes death. About 1 out of 6 people who contract Covid-19 becomes seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing."


If You Have an Underlying Condition, Your Body Has a Harder Time Fighting COVID


"People with underlying conditions such as cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, immunosuppressed patients and older people are more likely to develop serious illness," says Stuczen. 


Eventually, With Good Care and Good Luck, Your Body Can Heal From COVID

Patients lying on hospital bed with mask, looking at lung x-ray film during doctor reading result and advice a treatment

"Don't panic," says Langland. "Most cases are minor and even the more moderate cases will be fine.  The majority of deaths are in the elderly or those with other underlying conditions, including hypertension and diabetes."


However, Many Patients Suffer Effects From COVID for Months


"Thousands of people across the globe — many of whom were young, active, and healthy — have been debilitated by ongoing, unexplainable symptoms," reports Buzzfeed. "These patients, also known as long-haulers, are crushing the popular idea that COVID is only serious for a small percentage of vulnerable people." "This is not just a respiratory illness. This is a systemic illness that makes you lose connection with the world," patient Hannah Davis told BuzzFeed News. "And the most shocking thing to me is how long it has taken for doctors and the general public to realize this basic fact."


What to Do if You Feel Like You Have COVID

woman in medical mask stay isolation at home for self quarantine

"Anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms, high temperature, new, continuous cough or shortness of breath should stay at home and self-isolate immediately," says Stuczen. "People with mild symptoms are able to recover at home. 

  • Make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Proper hydration is very important in your recovery process. 
  • Separate yourself from other people at home as much as possible and do not share personal household items such as cups, plates, drinking glasses, towels or bedding.  You should stay in one room and use a separate bathroom if available. 
  • Wash your hands very often. 
  • You should also restrict contact with pets and animals. It is recommended that people with the virus limit contact with animals until more information is known. 
  • If you need to leave home make sure you wear a facemask and you keep at least six feet distance from other people.
  • Remember that you may only experience mild symptoms and recover quickly but if you don't use all precautions you may infect other people with weaker immune systems. Their bodies may not be able to cope with the virus and it may cost their life. Everyone reacts to this virus in a different way and we need to make sure we protect not only ourselves but also people around us."

What to Do if Your COVID Symptoms Worsen

Sick Woman On Bed

"If your symptoms are worsening (for example you have difficulty breathing) seek medical care immediately," says Stuczen. "Don't go to the hospital or doctor's office. Call ahead and tell them your symptoms. They will tell you what to do. You can leave home after at least 7 days have passed since your first symptoms appeared and you have no fever for a minimum 72 hours without the use of medicine that reduces fever and all other symptoms have improved such as cough or shortness of breath."


How to Prevent COVID Infection in the First Place

Woman with medical mask to protect her from virus

"Try to avoid contact with others. Keep distance between you and others if you need to be in a public space.  Wash hands and avoid touching your face with your hands. Disinfect surfaces where others may have touched. Also, try to stay healthy. Eat well, get rest and try to not stress. Keep your immune system strong and healthy," says Langland. "The novel coronavirus is just that, new, which means the world's population has no immunity," says Marjorie Golden, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist. Stay inside to keep you—and everyone else—happy and healthy, and your body will thank you. As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Emilia Paluszek
Emilia specializes in human biology and psychology at the University at Albany. Read more about Emilia
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