Our Lung HelpLine is answering questions about COVID-19. Contact our Lung HelpLine by calling 1-800-LUNGUSA or submitting a question online.

What Is COVID-19

COVID-19 is the illness caused by a novel coronavirus first detected in China in late 2019. Early transmission of the coronavirus was linked to an animal market, suggesting animal-to-person infection. By January 2020, with the spread of coronavirus disease to over 100 other locations, including the U.S., the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the outbreak a public health emergency and later, a pandemic.

How It Affects Your Body

The lungs are the first and main body organ affected by COVID-19. In the early days of an infection, the novel coronavirus rapidly invades cells in our lungs. COVID-19 is thought to attack the epithelial cells lining the airways—that catch and clear out things like pollen and viruses—flooding our airways with debris and fluids.

Some of the earliest studies on COVID-19 have found that patients who experience severe disease develop pneumonia in both lungs, accompanied by symptoms like shortness of breath. For these individuals, lung damage continues to build—which can lead to respiratory failure. That's why it's important to listen to your body and make note of any symptoms, and stay in close contact with your healthcare provider—especially if you have an underlying lung disease.

Watch this video from The New York Times that shows how coronavirus attacks the body.

People at Higher Risk for Severe Illness

The novel coronavirus has never before been seen in humans so we have no immunity to it and everyone is at risk of becoming infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Some individuals, such as healthcare professionals and those caring for people sick with COVID-19, are more likely to get infected than others.

There are some individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness if they develop COVID-19. Based on current information, the most at-risk groups include:

  • People aged 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • People of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including:
    • People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
    • People who are immunocompromised. Many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised, including cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications
  • People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
  • Other medical conditions including serious heart conditions, diabetes, liver disease and people with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis

The American Lung Association is closely following reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will help relay important public health information provided by the agency. We encourage you to follow along for all in-the-moment updates.
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Page last updated: April 29, 2020

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