Beyond the symptoms, doctor breaks down what COVID-19 does to the body

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (WDAF) -- We know the main symptoms of the coronavirus, but do you know what it's actually doing inside the body?

Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Kansas Health System, describes what a person's body goes through once they are infected.

Hawkinson said the virus is typically breathed into the body through your nose and mouth, but the virus has been found in different parts of a person's body.

The virus attaches itself to receptors inside the lungs and cycles through the body.

"It’s an outcropping of your cell. It’s something that the virus can attach to, so then it can then infect the cell," Hawkinson said. "We think that those receptors are on your respiratory system, but also in your GI tract, in your heart and in your kidneys."

George Washington University Hospital in Washington D.C. released a 3D image of the lungs of a man who passed away from COVID-19. You can see in the yellow areas where the inflammatory cells replicate and cover much of the lungs.

Hawkinson said this coating on the inside of your lung makes it difficult for patients to breathe.

"That inflammation, that includes cells but also chemicals, really creates that layer where it is difficult for the gas exchange," Hawkinson said. "It’s difficult for you to get the oxygen you breathe into the blood system so that it can get to the rest of your body."

He said SARS and MERS are similar viruses they're looking at to understand COVID-19 better.

"All of these inflammatory cells that would normally be used to adequately treat a viral infection, but when you have a rush of those -- that is what we believe certainly from SARS, but also from this is probably one of the reasons you get acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS," Hawkinson said.

According to the Mayo Clinic, ARDS happens when fluid fills the lungs and keeps the body from breathing adequate air and keeping oxygen from reaching your bloodstream. Ultimately, it keeps organs from receiving the oxygen they need to function properly.

The clinic reports that many do not survive from ARDS, but those who do could either experience lung damage or recover completely.

Not all people who contract COVID-19 experience ARDS, and many recover without reaching this point.

Hawkinson said it's too early to fully understand the virus. He said that at his hospital, they're using hydroxychloroquine on some patients, studying the patients for developments and learning about this new virus each day.

"We are still continuing to look every day to try and figure out the answers to these questions, to try and figure out therapeutics to try and get people better, and the best way for them to come through this infection as best as possible," Hawkinson said.

As for the future of COVID-19, Hawkinson said it's different from the flu. It could turn into something seasonal or a virus that goes around.

Ultimately, he said the best option is to find a vaccine for the virus.

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