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, short for COronaVIrus Disease 2019, is a respiratory 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. Only months later, confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recorded in almost every country around the world.

How It Affects Your Body

The lungs are the first body organ affected by COVID-19. In the early days of an infection, the novel coronavirus rapidly invades cells in our respiratory system. 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.

People who become sick with COVID-19 may experience mild to severe disease, or in many cases be asymptomatic (have no symptoms). COVID-19 symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath, can come on suddenly. Severe illness may cause a number of complications that require medical intervention, including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Cardiac disease
  • Blood clots
  • Kidney disease
  • Organ failure

COVID-19 can be fatal for anyone, though the greatest percentage of individuals who die are over the age of 85 or are living with a chronic disease as listed at the bottom of the page.

Some individuals, even those with mild illness that did not require hospitalization, experience prolonged or new symptoms post-infection. Learn more about post-COVID long term symptoms.

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 SARS-CoV-2, 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.

Anyone can have mild to severe symptoms from COVID-19, and some people are asymptomatic (have no symptoms). There are some individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness, meaning they may end up needing to be hospitalized, put in the intensive care unit, need a ventilator to help them breath or they may even die. 

Based on current information:

  • Risk increases as you age so the older you are, the higher your risk with the greatest threat being to individuals over the age of 85 years old
  • People of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including:
    • People with chronic lung diseases including:
          • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis
          • Asthma that is moderate to severe
          • Having damaged or scarred lung tissue such as interstitial lung disease, including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
          • Cystic fibrosis
          • Pulmonary hypertension
    • People who are immunocompromised from solid organ transplantation.
    • People living with a current cancer diagnosis, including lung cancer.
    • People who are a current or former smoker
    • People who are overweight (body mass index [BMI] of 25 or higher), with obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher) and especially severe obesity (BMI of 40 or higher)
  • Other medical conditions including serious heart conditions, type 1 or 2 diabetes, sickle cell disease, pregnancy, Down Syndrome, neurological conditions such as dementia, HIV infection, having a weakened immune system, liver disease, have cerebrovascular disease, substance use disorders (including alcohol, opioids or cocaine use) and people with chronic kidney disease.

Children have been less affected by severe illness from COVID-19 than adults, though they can also experience severe symptoms up to and including death. Limited evidence suggests children with medical complexity or with genetic, neurologic, metabolic conditions or congenital heart defects can be at increased risk for severe illness. 

Similar to adults, children with underlying medical conditions might place them at increased risk, including asthma and other chronic lung diseases, obesity, sickle cell disease, and immunosuppression due to cancer or immune-weakening medications. 

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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Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: April 14, 2021

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