(WGGB/WSHM) -- New research is showing the lungs of COVID-19 patients appear worse in x-rays than those of smokers.

When you're infected with COVID-19, a mild case of the virus can stay in your nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract.

In some cases, it makes its way to the lungs.

“…And so your immune system has to fight this off. You've got this virus in your lungs, it's a bad thing, so your immune systems starts to fight it and this fight between your immune system and the virus causes physical damage to the lungs,” said UMass microbiologist Dr. Erika Hamilton.

Hamilton told Western Mass News that the lungs are an organ that’s filled with little balloons or tiny air sacks where oxygen comes into the body and carbon dioxide leaves.

However, she said this is a very delicate system and the fight between the virus and your immune system can cause damage to the lungs.

“There's scarring, so actual scar tissue can build up and because the lung is such a delicate organ, that scar tissue stops scar tissue coming in,” Hamilton explained.

Other things that can happen include blood clots and those little air sacs could actually start to disintegrate or collapse.

All of this stops oxygen from being able to get into your body.

“So you're basically left with a patient that can't breathe very well and it causes shortness of breath, excessive coughing, it causes fatigue, it can lead to heart problems,” Hamilton said.

Studies are now showing lung x-rays of people who've been infected with COVID-19 looking worse than the lungs of people who've been smoking for years.

A side-by-side comparison shows the healthy lungs are clean with a lot of black, meaning lots of air. The white lines in the smoker’s lungs indicate scarring and congestion. The COVID lungs are mostly white.

After COVID recovery, some continue to suffer from lingering neurological, cardiac, and heart problems.

While some might not feel it right now, impacts from damaged lungs like these could lead to severe problems later on. Hamilton said these patients are called ‘long-haulers.’ Those who lose their taste and smell for months also fall into this category.

While patients who are older or have underlying health concerns seem to be more at-risk, Hamilton said many young, seemingly healthy people are suffering just as much.

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg…Not only should you be worried about getting COVID, for the short term, ‘Wow, I'm sick,’ but you've also get this long-term component to it which may end up causing a lot of healthcare issues and a strain on our healthcare system and a strain on the people who have caught it, so it’s not just these acute infections. It’s these long term issues as well,” Hamilton added.

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