The One Part of Your Body You Didn't Know COVID Infects, New Study Says

This could cause major damage, experts say.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is known to attack just about every part of the body, and now, researchers have discovered one more target to add to the list. A Feb. 3 paper published in the journal Nature Metabolism found that the novel coronavirus specifically attacks the pancreas, causing a range of potentially long-lasting consequences. Read on to find out how COVID affects the pancreas, and to learn COVID's most serious symptoms, check out If You Have One of These Symptoms, the CDC Says Go to the Hospital Now.

The pancreas has two main functions. First, it produces enzymes for digestion, and second, it churns out the two hormones responsible for regulating blood sugar levels: insulin and glucagon. For this reason, damage to the pancreas can have a destabilizing effect on metabolic regulation, as well as how the body produces insulin.

The researchers' discovery may account for a wide range of surprising metabolic effects associated with the new coronavirus. Beyond the widely publicized link between diabetes and severe COVID cases, there are several lesser known connections between the two.

To name a few, roughly one third of critically ill COVID patients have developed pancreatitis, while up to 17 percent have experienced pancreatic enlargement, notes the study's research team out of Ulm University Medical Center in Germany. In some rare cases, adult patients with no history of diabetes have spontaneously developed the condition as a result of the virus. The study authors also cited separate research which found "an 80 percent increase of new-onset T1DM [Type-1 Diabetes Mellitus] in children during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Of course, the pancreas is just one of many essential organs affected by COVID-19. Read on for more areas of your body that COVID specifically targets, and for more on spotting a case early, check out This Is the First Sign That You Have Coronavirus, Study Says.

1
The kidneys

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According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, early reports from China and New York City found that up to 30 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 developed moderate or severe kidney injury. "The kidney damage is, in some cases, severe enough to require dialysis," C. John Sperati, MD, an associate professor of medicine, writes for the Johns Hopkins website. "Many patients with severe COVID-19 are those with co-existing, chronic conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes. Both of these increase the risk of kidney disease," Sperati says. And for more on how COVID can affect you in the long run, check out Dr. Fauci Just Warned of These "Disturbing" Long COVID Symptoms.

2
The heart

male doctor checking hospitalized female patient listening to her heart and nurse standing next to them all wearing protective facemasks - Pandemic lifestyles
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According to Harvard Health Publishing, COVID-19 can damage the heart in several ways. "For example, the virus may directly invade or inflame the heart muscle, and it may indirectly harm the heart by disrupting the balance between oxygen supply and demand," explains Harvard Health contributor Dara Lee Lewis, MD, a cardiologist and co-director of the Women's Program at the Lown Cardiovascular Center.

According to Lewis, about a quarter of hospitalized COVID patients experience heart injury. "Of these patients, about one-third have pre-existing CVD," she explains, referring to cardiovascular disease. And for more ways COVID can affect the body long-term, check out You May Not Ever Be Able to Do This After Surviving COVID, Study Warns.

3
The brain

MRI digital x-ray of brain with team radiologist doctor oncology working together in clinic hospital. Medical healthcare concept. (MRI digital x-ray of brain with team radiologist doctor oncology working together in clinic hospital. Medical healthcare
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COVID-19 is known to affect brain function and cause a range of neurological symptoms.  These can include loss of smell and taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and stroke, according to a report from Harvard Health Publishing. Among patients with severe COVID cases, roughly one third present with at least one neurological symptom.

That said, experts have yet to determine exactly how the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes neurological symptoms. "They could be the direct result of infection or an indirect consequence of inflammation or altered oxygen and carbon dioxide levels caused by the virus," Harvard's experts say. And for more regular COVID updates, sign up for our daily newsletter.

4
The lungs

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Because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, the lungs are the organ most directly affected. As a result of the virus, the lungs can often become inflamed, causing labored breathing or shortness of breath. Additionally, patients may develop pneumonia, a condition in which the air sacs within the lungs fill with fluid or pus. Doctors often diagnose these cases by looking for gray shadows on lungs known as "ground glass opacities," which can be found on CT scans. And for more on the long-term affects of COVID, check out The Disturbing New Symptom of Long COVID Doctors Want You to Know.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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