How does the coronavirus attack your immune system?

  • The virus replicates inside cells and hinders the immune system’s response
  • Your body could produce an overreaction of antiviral proteins
  • Symptoms include a fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath

When you become infected with the coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, the virus first makes itself known with symptoms like a persistent cough, fever, and difficulty breathing. Here’s how it attacks your immune system. 

At first, the virus incubates inside the body for an average of five days. Once the virus latches onto healthy cells, it uses the cell’s own reproductive mechanism to replicate itself. Then the onset of mild symptoms begins. For most people, that resembles a bad cold or flu. 

The virus will enter a host and attach itself to a vulnerable cell, where it fuses membranes with the host cell. As viral RNA fuses itself to the cell’s own mechanism to reproduce viral proteins, it hinders the response of the immune system. 

These new copies of the viral cells attach themselves to healthy cells and keep the process going until the immune system catches up or medical intervention intervenes in the spread. 

The body rallies to fight the virus, producing antiviral proteins called cytokines, which effectively keep coronavirus from latching onto healthy cells and using them to replicate. But some people are experiencing overreactions. As Vox explains, that’s called a cytokine storm, and it’s “an excessive immune response [that] ravages healthy lung tissue, leading to acute respiratory distress and multi-organ failure.” That can lead to death.

These overactive immune responses have been shown to affect some coronavirus cases, where these proteins attack organs and healthy cells. However, this typically affects 15% of all extreme infections and is not the rule.

While its host gets sick, the virus spreads using one of its symptoms as a mechanism: coughing. Droplets that are expelled in a cough can transmit the virus by being breathed in by others or surviving on surfaces which are commonly touched, like doorknobs and countertops.

Sources: New York Times, BBC, Vox

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