COVID-19 is a new disease, and as such experts are learning more about it every day. Researchers are racing to develop and test a vaccine and to come up with a functional cure. The uncertainty can be scary, but the good news is that even just a few short months into what’s become a global pandemic, experts have learned a lot about exactly how the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) attacks the body. And the more we know about the illness, the better equipped we are to protect ourselves against it.
We asked experts to explain how coronavirus infiltrates your cells, and why it causes certain common symptoms. Here’s what they wanted us to know.
How does coronavirus get into the body?
When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, they produce “respiratory droplets,” which are essentially tiny beads of water that contain some other stuff, including mucus or saliva — and, in this case, the COVID-19 virus.
While it’s possible to inhale these droplets straight out of the air, they don’t stay airborne long. A more common form of transmission occurs when someone who’s sick coughs or sneezes on their hands, then touches a surface, such as the freezer door handle at the grocery store.
Studies show that the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours to days. That means that the next person who comes by to pick up a pint of ice cream may walk away with droplets on their hands. And if they touch their face, those droplets will come into contact with a mucus membrane — think: the eyes, nose, or mouth. That’s all the virus needs to take root.
Once it’s in your body, the virus attaches to your cells, says Jane M. Orient, MD, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.
Imagine the raid in Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl — but your cells are the homes in Port Royal and the virus is the pirates, breaking, entering, and plundering. The virus slips inside each cell and starts to replicate. Eventually, the cell bursts open and dies, explains Jill Grimes, MD, a board-certified family physician at UT Austin’s Student Health Services. The virus rushes into the bloodstream, and the process repeats itself in neighboring cells.
Why does coronavirus cause coughing?
Since the early days of the pandemic, coughing was known to be a red-flag symptom of COVID-19. “[The coronavirus] may have a tendency to get into the lower respiratory tract, the lungs, and the air sacs in the lungs — more so than the common cold,” Dr. Orient says. The cough is your body responding to the irritation.
For some — especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions — COVID-19 can even lead to viral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Both are serious conditions that can cause lung damage, and may require treatment with a ventilator.
Why does coronavirus trigger loss of smell and taste?
This is emerging as another hallmark symptom of coronavirus. In an analysis looking at 579 people with the virus, 59% of them reported loss of taste and smell, research out of King’s College London found.
Experts don’t know exactly what causes this, but Dr. Grimes and Dr. Orient both say it likely has to do with damage done to the nerve cells in the nose. “Think of it like how smoking or vaping can destroy the taste buds or sense of smell through direct irritation and damage to your mouth and nasal area,” Dr. Grimes says.
Dr. Orient says she hopes this effect will be temporary for most people, but only time will tell for sure.
What are other common symptoms of coronavirus?
The virus presents differently in different people, but there are some through lines. One major report published by the World Health Organization based on 56,000 cases in China found that 40% of patients reported fatigue, about 19% experienced shortness of breath, and 88% had a fever.
“Patients who have coronavirus are having to breathe really hard,” Dr. Orient says. “They’re short of breath, because they have to overcome the blockages, [including fluid in the lungs].” Similar to the way you feel tired after you breathe hard on a run, this can overtax the body and really wear it out over time.
The fever is likely due to your body’s immune response. “Part of our body’s natural, healthy response to infection is to raise our temperature, which can decrease the ability of the virus to replicate,” Dr. Grimes says. But if your temperature rises to over 104°F you should call your healthcare provider for advice. Start treating the fever at home after it reaches 102°F.
How should COVID-19 be treated?
As of now, there’s no easy remedy. Although plenty of alleged “cures” for coronavirus have been circulating on social media and in emails (for example, that gargling salt water can prevent coronavirus), many are myths. Currently, a national trial is being conducted to examine whether the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can treat symptoms; it shows promise, but more testing needs to be done. Intravenous Vitamin C is being used in some places with good results, Dr. Orient adds, though experts are still divided on whether it helps.
If you think you’re sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends calling your healthcare provider so they can advise you on next steps. Right now, the general advice for an otherwise healthy person is to avoid the hospital unless you have trouble breathing. This is to help prevent further spread of the disease. But the situation is changing rapidly, so talk to someone before acting.
You should also ask your doctor what medications to take, even if you’re treating yourself at home with OTC drugs. Dr. Grimes says cold meds seem to help symptoms. But some experts, including Orient, recommend against certain remedies, such as fever reducers. “There is [also] some theoretical concern about using ibuprofen products in COVID-19 that led to early recommendations to use acetaminophen, or Tylenol, instead,” Dr. Grimes says. “But current best evidence does not support that concern.”
Also smart: sleeping and hydrating as much as possible, as with many illnesses, the Mayo Clinic reports.
How can we help our body protect itself from coronavirus?
There are the ways we’ve been told a thousand times: Wash your hands. Distance yourself from others. Don’t go out unless it’s necessary.
The point is: Do everything you can to protect yourself from this virus, because you don’t want it taking commandeering your system, Jack Sparrow-style.