Coronavirus: What X-rays and CT scans reveal about how COVID-19 kills

X-ray images and CT scans of coronavirus patients reveal how their lungs are being ravaged by the virus and filled with a sticky mucus that prevents them from inhaling because there is no space for air.

Medical professionals around the world, from front-line staff to research scientists, are beginning to develop a solid understanding of how the novel coronavirus spreads and affects the body.

There have now been more than 4,600 deaths from the COVID-19 disease worldwide as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread, with 126,000 confirmed cases globally.

An international effort to share X-ray and CT scans has helped produce a growing body of evidence which doctors can use to diagnose those most seriously affected.

The CT scans of COVID-19 patients have revealed white patches in the lungs - which radiologists have called ground-glass opacities - so-called because they show up on the scans similar to ground-glass windows.

These white patches on the CT scan indicate pneumonia, as the spaces which are normally filled by air are being filled with something else instead.

Post-mortem examinations in China of individuals who have died after contracting COVID-19 have revealed that these areas are being filled with a sticky mucus that literally prevents the patient from inhaling as there is no space for the air to enter.

Images produced from scans of a 41-year-old woman who had a fever and a cough, as well as tested positive for the virus, show this mucus filling large tracts of her lungs.

According to an article published in the Radiological Society of North America's (RSNA) journal Radiology, there is no specific treatment available for laboratory confirmed cases.

It said when scans reveal coronavirus-induced pneumonia, care for patients has to be "primarily supportive with appropriate precautions to stop person-to-person transmission" - in other words, hoping the body manages to beat the virus itself.

In some cases this can happen, although for many people with symptoms there is simply no access to a simple test during the early days of a fever and a cough.

It is the most severe cases which are likely to be diagnosed with these scans, and these cases are the most likely to lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and potentially death.

This could prove to be a significant issue as people who have contracted coronavirus are at their most contagious early after becoming infected and potentially before even displaying symptoms and self-isolating, according to a new study.

Research from the scientists at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology found that transmissions are likely being driven by the coronavirus' high rate of viral shedding.

This refers to the process of the virus replicating itself and then spreading into other parts of the host's body or the environment where they could continue the process, early on in infection.

The highest levels of virus were found in the throats of patients in the earliest stages of infection and before they feel unwell, which is when they are most likely to be walking about and coughing, spreading the virus.