What Happens to Your Body When You Get the New Coronavirus?

Over 1,000 people have died and 45,000 have fallen ill with the new coronavirus, which emerged in a Chinese city late last year. So, what exactly happens to your body when you catch the little-understood bug—which has been named COVID-19?

As the disease only came to the attention of health authorities late last year when it started sickening workers at a wholesale seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, experts are constantly learning about its characteristics.

According to the World Health Organization, which has declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, it is like any other respiratory illness and can cause mild symptoms such as a runny rose, sore throat, cough and a fever. But in serious cases, it can cause pneumonia, as well as breathing problems. "More rarely, the disease can be fatal," the UN health agency said.

In a paper published in the journal JAMA last week, a group of researchers shed light on how the new member of the coronavirus family of pathogens affects people, assessing the condition of 138 patients who developed pneumonia after catching COVID-19. The individuals were treated at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, in the city at the epicenter of the outbreak. While the virus has spread to over 25 countries and territories, as shown in the infographic by Statista below, all but two of the deaths have occurred inside mainland China—largely in Hubei.

Coronavirus Countries 11 February Statista
Countries where coronavirus has been confirmed. Statista

Of all the participants, six died and the remaining were hospitalized as of February 3.

Most of the patients, who had an average age of 56, developed a fever, felt fatigued, and had a dry cough. Some also had muscle aches and shortness of breath. It was less common for them to have a headache, dizziness, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.

On average, there was a five-day period between the time they experienced their first symptoms and started to struggle to breathe, and seven days before they were admitted to hospital. Those who developed acute respiratory distress syndrome—a lung problem that deprives organs of oxygen—had it after eight days.

In X-rays of the patients' lungs, all of them showed patchy shadows and/or what is known as ground-glass opacity, which describes how attenuation in the lungs shows up in scans. On average, the patients spent 10 days in hospital.

As there are currently no drugs available to treat the new bug, healthcare workers must simply manage a patient's symptoms. Of the 36 patients whose conditions were severe enough to require treatment in an intensive care unit (ICU), most were older men (aged 66 on average) and were more likely to have underlying conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, which affects the blood vessels.

"This suggests that age and comorbidity may be risk factors for poor outcome," the authors of the study wrote.

The team found men and women were equally likely to end up in ICU, in a departure from previous reports suggesting men were more susceptible to serious complications. They explained the initial finding was likely skewed by the fact most of the first patients were male workers at the seafood market, and that was the data available at that time. This highlights how quickly our understanding of the condition is evolving.

coronavirus case, protective clothing, Indonesia
Health workers wearing protective gear take part in an exercise in handling a suspected patient at Sanglah hopital in Denpasar, Indonesia's resort island of Bali, on February 12, 2020. SONNY TUMBELAKA/Getty

In a separate study published in The Lancet looking at the first 41 cases of pneumonia caused by COVID-19, researchers similarly found patients also had a fever, dry cough, were fatigued and showed signs of a lung infection in scans.

Scientists are working on a vaccine against COVID-19, but it is unlikely to be developed in time to help the current outbreak. To prevent the spread of the disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks the public to follow the usual steps to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.

These include regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the bathroom, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow and throw away the tissue immediately. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Stay at home if you are sick, and if you are well, avoid those who are ill. Objects and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected frequently using spray or wipes.