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How does COVID-19 affect the body?

Medically reviewed by Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD · General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Apr 19, 2021

How does COVID-19 affect the body?

As soon as the news about the initial wave of COVID-19 broke, comparisons were made. Some likened it to other viruses such as influenza, bird flu, or even SARS.

Some even dismissed the panic as unnecessary, since influenza, or the flu, infects more people yearly compared to this new virus.

While that may be the case, one major difference is that we have been studying influenza for decades. And we know exactly how to manage and control the virus through vaccines and treatment methods.

When it comes to this new outbreak, we cannot fully predict how COVID-19 affects the body. We have yet to define how it behaves, or if there’s potential for it to evolve into something more fatal. But we do know what its common symptoms are and to some extent, we know how COVID-19 affects the body.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for?

In most cases, COVID-19 can initially manifest flu-like symptoms. These include the following:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Muscle aches
  • Shortness of breath

These symptoms usually appear within 2 to 14 days.

This is why experts recommend self-quarantine for those who suspect they might have been infected, for 14 days. And if possible, they should get tested for the virus.

The following symptoms can also manifest, but are less common than the other symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea

How COVID-19 Affects the Body: The Lungs

how covid-19 affects the body

COVID-19 (formerly known as novel coronavirus) is a virus that primarily attacks the lungs. 

A person’s lungs are the primary target for COVID-19. When the virus attacks a person’s lungs, it targets the air sacs or the alveoli. The alveoli cells are responsible for blood oxygen exchange, so they are essential when it comes to our survival. 

Once the virus compromises the cilia cells, then debris and liquid can quickly build up inside the lungs. This can cause breathing difficulties.

This is why more severe symptoms of COVID-19 include difficulty breathing and pneumonia.

How COVID-19 Affects The Body: The Immune System “Kicks into Overdrive’

In severe cases, a person’s immune system can cause even more problems for someone infected with the virus. That’s because our own immune system because of the overwhelming response of defenders, releases chemicals called cytokines in the bloodstream. This excess of cytokines actually causes damage to vital organs, leading to systemic organ failure.. 

Usually, this is a good thing, but if the immune system sends too much of these cells to the lungs, the immune cells can kill even the healthy cells. This causes even more problems, since more debris and liquid accumulates in the lungs, and since the lungs are already damaged, the person infected finds it even more difficult to breathe. 

The Cytokine Storm

how covid-19 affects the body

A severe infection like COVID-19 can cause what’s called a “cytokine storm.” Cytokines are chemicals sent out by a person’s immune system to signal to immune cells where to go.

However, when the body sends out too many cytokines, the immune cells can work overtime, and potentially damage even the healthy cells of the body.

For a person with COVID-19, cytokine storms can cause immune cells to attack other healthy cells. This eventually spreads throughout the body, and can cause multiple organ failure.

According to a recent report by the WHO, as of March 20, 2020, 93% of COVID-19 related deaths in the Philippines happened to people who have pre-existing conditions including hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease.

This is how COVID-19 affects the body, and the effects can be potentially devastating, if left unaddressed.

That’s why it’s important for people to know how COVID-19 affects the body, and to take necessary measures in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. That’s because even if a healthy person can survive the virus, there’s a possibility that they can spread the virus to someone who is more vulnerable.

COVID-19 Can Affect Long-term Lung Health

As the lung damage becomes more severe, it cannot sustain its job anymore to provide oxygen to the blood. This condition, also known as respiratory failure or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), is the most common cause of death among those infected with COVID-19.

Patients who experience severe symptoms are usually put on ventilators in order for them to breathe. The ventilators serve as your temporary lungs, preventing the drop in oxygen levels that can damage your vital organs. But if the infection can’t be contained, blood eventually fills their lungs, and then they can no longer breathe as a result.

Additionally, if a person survives the virus, they’re usually left with scar tissue or lesions on their lungs, similar to those who were infected by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). This means that they can potentially have respiratory problems down the road, even if they recover.

COVID-19 Can Also Cause Stomach Issues

how covid-19 affecs the body

While a person’s lungs are the primary target of COVID-19, this does not mean that the effects of the virus are limited to a person’s respiratory system. 

Similar to coronavirus-caused SARS and MERS, COVID-19 can also affect the stomach. These viruses can live in a person’s gut and cause diarrhea. 

COVID-19 Complications to Watch Out For

While the virus doesn’t directly affect organs such as the kidneys or the liver, COVID-19 complications can cause other serious problems.

For patients who have conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or kidney problems, COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease.

One of the biggest concerns with COVID-19 is that it can easily be mistaken as other respiratory ailments. This is why those with symptoms can consult their physician and be recommended for testing, and wear a mask, or quarantine themselves to minimize infection risk.

There’s a saying that goes, “knowing is half the battle,” and the same can be said about the battle against COVID-19. The more we know about the virus, the better we can prepare ourselves against it.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD

General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Apr 19, 2021

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