COVID-19 has rapidly spread around the world. What started as a localized outbreak in China has now become a threat to humans around the world. While the virus can create an incredibly wide range of symptoms in its victims, one of the more commonly seen is shortness of breath, followed by other, more severe breathing problems.
COVID-19 related breathing problems are often seen as one of the initial symptoms, heralding something potentially far more dangerous. The lack of a vaccine or specific treatment plan complicates matters, leaving patients in fear and distress. Understanding these breathing problems and your treatment options can help provide a little peace of mind.
Understanding COVID-19 Breathing Problems
When the novel coronavirus invades, it first comes into contact with the soft mucosal surfaces in your eyes, nose, and throat. It colonizes those cells, using them to begin replicating itself. As the virus grows, it spreads downward, following the path of your respiratory tract into your lungs.
Once the virus enters your lungs, the body’s immune system kicks into high gear. It’s designed to fight off viruses and other invaders and does so in a couple of different ways. One of those is through inflammation, which can lead to a sore throat, coughing, and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, the alveoli in the lungs become inflamed. This reduces the amount of oxygen your lungs can take in and how much carbon dioxide is expelled.
In even more severe cases, both lungs are affected and the body continues to fight back through inflammation. Fluid begins to build up, combined with debris from the virus, which further reduces your ability to breathe.
However, in all cases but asymptomatic patients, shortness of breath is the first breathing problem noticed. What does that term mean, though?
What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like?
According to Dr. Perez-Fernandez of Baptist Hospital of Miami,
“If you’re going up the stairs for a few floors and you feel lack of air, now that might not be shortness of breath. It might just be that you’re out of shape. But if you go from your living room to your kitchen to get a glass of water, and then suddenly you’re experiencing shortness of breath which you may not have had before, then this is a big indicator that you may need medical attention.”
Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, due to COVID-19 can be very persistent. It can also escalate very quickly. It can also vary from patient to patient. You may notice some or all of the following sensations:
- You feel like you are gasping for air.
- Your chest feels too tight to breathe in or out fully.
- Each breath you take requires more effort than the last, draining your energy.
- You may feel like you are breathing through a narrow tube.
Beyond Shortness of Breath
COVID-19 does more than just make it hard for you to breathe. It’s estimated that 20% or more of patients will develop a more serious lung-related disease due to the novel coronavirus. Some patients will develop pneumonia, for example. COVID-19 pneumonia also differs from regular pneumonia and is more difficult to fight.
Some patients will ultimately develop acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. While ARDS is present in non-COVID patients, those with COVID-19 experience more significant symptoms, with many medical professionals terming the acronym CARDS to note the major differences in COVID and non-COVID conditions.
Yet other lung problems stemming from COVID-19 include sepsis, which is when the infection reaches the bloodstream (and is often fatal), as well as superinfection, which is when a secondary infection sets in, further straining the immune system, which is already overtaxed fighting off COVID-19.
How Can Stem Cell Therapy Help Alleviate COVID-19 Related Breathing Problems?
Stem cells have been heavily researched for use in treating a very wide range of conditions, including lung diseases and injuries. As the proto-building blocks of all cell types in the body, stem cells show immense promise in combating shortness of breath, pneumonia, and other conditions.
According to a study titled Mesenchymal Stem Cell Therapy for COVID-19: Present or Future, the authors found,
“After the intravenous transplantation of MSCs, a significant population of cells accumulates in the lung, which they alongside immunomodulatory effect could protect alveolar epithelial cells, reclaim the pulmonary microenvironment, prevent pulmonary fibrosis, and cure lung dysfunction. Given the uncertainties in this area, we reviewed reported clinical trials and hypotheses to provide useful information to researchers and those interested in stem cell therapy.”
Further, in an article written for the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Joshua M. Hare, M.D. Louis Lemberg Professor of Medicine noted,
“Administering mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to COVID-19 patients with life-threatening respiratory problems appears to be a safe form of therapy. Large-scale multicenter clinical trials will be the next step in determining whether MSCs improve patient outcomes.”
Yet another study, this one from China found that human umbilical-cord derived MSCs
“showed positive effects. MSCs played their immune modulation roles to reverse the lymphocyte subsets. A group of CD14+CD11c+CD11bmid regulatory DC cell population dramatically increased. Meanwhile, the level of TNF-α decreased significantly, and IL-10 increased in the MSC treatment group compared to the placebo control group. Furthermore, the gene expression profile showed that MSCs were ACE2– and TMPRSS2–, suggesting the MSCs were free from COVID-19 infection. Thus, the intravenous transplantation of MSCs was safe and effective for treatment in patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, especially for patients whose condition was critically severe.”
Moving Toward a Specific Treatment
As you can see, stem cell therapy shows great promise for those struggling with breathing problems due to COVID-19. However, as the FDA has yet to approve any form of stem cell treatment, any such therapies must be considered experimental. Patients and their family members should also focus on finding a physician familiar with allogeneic stem cell implantation, as these offer the least chance of an adverse immune system response and deliver heightened healing and regenerative capabilities.