How COVID-19 affects your lungs

April 28, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

This blog was originally posted in 2020. Some information may be out of date. For the latest updates on vaccines, testing, screening, visitor policy and post-COVID support, visit

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that targets the lungs.

For many, the virus will cause mild to moderate symptoms and will not require hospitalization. But for others, the disease can be more serious and lead to hospitalization, critical care, and in some cases it can be fatal.

COVID-19 starts with droplets from an infected person’s cough, sneeze or breath. Once the virus enters your body, it looks for a home in the mucous membranes in your nose or throat. It can be 14 days before you realize you have been infected and experience early symptoms such as a fever, sore throat or dry cough.

The virus can continue to move down your respiratory tract eventually landing in your lungs, where it can cause inflammation and infection, making it more difficult to breathe.

The most serious cases of COVID-19 involve lung infections where the virus can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can be potentially fatal as it closes off air sacs and causes inflammation of the lungs, making breathing difficult.

Although most COVID-19 cases resolve with mild to moderate symptoms, it is important to keep the lungs healthy during this time. For many patients, deep breathing exercises can be helpful.

The Today show recently featured a British doctor who demonstrated deep breathing. Here’s how it works:

  • Take a slow, deep breath in.
  • Hold it for five seconds, then slowly exhale.
  • Repeat five times, ending the fifth repetition with a cough to expel any mucous.

If you are ill, you can do this exercise every couple of hours.

Patients who have had surgery in the past are probably familiar with this exercise. Oftentimes, the exercise is done with a spirometer and patients breathe in through a tube and move a piston up the device to measure their breaths.

Taking in a slow, deep breath and then coughing helps open the lower part of the lungs, where infection can set in, and dislodge any mucous that may have collected there.

In more serious COVID-19 cases, physicians also position patients in the hospital on their stomachs (called prone positioning). Lying on your back can put pressure on some sections of the lung, but proning opens the lungs, helping oxygen flow.

“You’re able to get more oxygen to where you need it,” said Joan Cecich, system director of respiratory care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Cecich said hospital staff are using these techniques with hospitalized patients as well as with those patients who have been discharged from the hospital and are recovering at home.

She noted that patients with COVID-19 who come to the Emergency Department but are discharged to recover at home, are sent home with a couple of tools to aid in their recovery from the virus.

Each patient receives a spirometer to use for deep breathing exercises at home, and a pulse oximeter to monitor their blood oxygen levels, with instructions on what to do if those levels dip.

Patients who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and are discharged to go home also are sent home with a spirometer to continue their breathing exercises.

Follow-up care also includes patients reporting their pulse oximeter readings through text to a case manager from the Emergency Department.

Use our symptom checker for additional information about COVID-19.

Get the latest coronavirus information from Edward-Elmhurst Health.

The information in this article may change at any time due to the changing landscape of this pandemic. Read the latest on COVID-19.


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