Coronavirus and COVID-19: What You Should KnowTeresa Tran
What Is COVID-19?
A coronavirus is a kind of common virus that causes an infection in your nose, sinuses, or upper throat. Most coronaviruses aren’t dangerous.
COVID-19 is a disease that can cause what doctors call a respiratory tract infection. It can affect your upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) or lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs). It’s caused by a coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2.
It spreads the same way other coronaviruses do, mainly through person-to-person contact. Infections range from mild to serious.
SARS-CoV-2 is one of seven types of coronavirus, including the ones that cause severe diseases like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The other coronaviruses cause most of the colds that affect us during the year but aren’t a serious threat for otherwise healthy people.
In early 2020, after a December 2019 outbreak in China, the World Health Organization identified SARS-CoV-2 as a new type of coronavirus. The outbreak quickly spread around the world.
Is there more than one strain of SARS-CoV-2?
It’s normal for a virus to change, or mutate, as it infects people. A Chinese study of 103 COVID-19 cases suggests the virus that causes it has done just that. They found two strains, which they named L and S. The S type is older, but the L type was more common in early stages of the outbreak. They think one may cause more cases of the disease than the other, but they’re still working on what it all means.
How long will the coronavirus last?
It’s too soon to tell how long the pandemic will continue. It depends on many things, including researchers’ work to learn more about the virus, their search for a treatment, and the public’s efforts to slow the spread.
Symptoms of COVID-19
Early symptoms include:
- Dry cough
The virus can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, septic shock, and death. If you notice the following severe symptoms in yourself or a loved one, get medical help right away:
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- Ongoing chest pain or pressure
- New confusion
- Can’t wake up fully
- Bluish lips or face
- Fever 83%-99%
- Cough 59%-82%
- Fatigue 44%-70%
- Lack of appetite 40%-84%
- Shortness of breath 31%-40%
- Mucus/phlegm 28%-33%
- Body aches 11%-35%
What to do if you think you have it
If you live in or have traveled to an area where COVID-19 is spreading:
- If you don’t feel well, stay home. Even if you have mild symptoms like a headache and runny nose, stay in until you’re better. This lets doctors focus on people who are more seriously ill and protects health care workers and people you might meet along the way. You might hear this called self-quarantine.
- Call the doctor if you have a fever, cough, and trouble breathing. You need to get medical help as soon as possible. Calling ahead (rather than showing up) will let the doctor direct you to the proper place, which may not be your doctor’s office. If you don’t have a regular doctor, call your local board of health. They can tell you where to go for testing and treatment.
- Follow your doctor’s advice and keep up with the news on COVID-19. Between your doctor and health care authorities, you’ll get the care you need and information on how to prevent the virus from spreading.
For more information about COVID-19, see our FAQ.
How do I know if it’s COVID-19, a cold, or the flu?
Symptoms of COVID-19 can be similar to a bad cold or the flu. Your doctor will suspect COVID-19 if:
- You have a fever and a cough.
- You live in an area with the virus or have traveled to places where it has spread.
Cold vs. Flu vs.
Allergies vs. COVID-19
(can range from moderate to severe)
|Fever||Rare||High (100-102 F), Can last 3-4 days||Never||Common|
|Headache||Rare||Intense||Uncommon||Can be present|
|General aches, pains||Slight||Usual, often severe||Never||Can be present|
|Fatigue, weakness||Mild||Intense, can last up to 2-3 weeks||Sometimes||Can be present|
|Extreme exhaustion||Never||Usual (starts early)||Never||Can be present|
|Stuffy/runny nose||Common||Sometimes||Common||Has been reported|
|Sneezing||Usual||Sometimes||Usual||Has been reported|
|Sore throat||Common||Common||Sometimes||Has been reported|
|Cough||Mild to moderate||Common, can become severe||Sometimes||Common|
|Shortness of breath||Rare||Rare||Rare, except for those with allergic asthma||In more serious infections|
Causes of the New Coronavirus
Researchers aren’t sure what caused it. There’s more than one coronavirus. They’re common in people and in animals including bats, camels, cats, and cattle. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is similar to MERS and SARS. They all came from bats. Many people who got the disease early on were linked to a large live seafood and animal market in China — you might hear it called a “wet market.” The first cases may have come from animals sold in the market, then spread from person to person.
Coronavirus Risk Factors
Anyone can get COVID-19, and most infections are usually mild, especially in children and young adults. But if you aren’t in an area where COVID-19 is spreading, haven’t traveled from an area where it’s spreading, and haven’t been in contact with someone who has it, your risk of infection is low.
People over 65 are most likely to get a serious illness, as are those who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, who have weakened immune systems, or who have medical conditions including:
- Moderate to severe asthma
- Heart, lung, or liver disease
- Kidney disease that needs dialysis
- Severe obesity
How does the coronavirus spread?
SARS-CoV-2, the virus, mainly spreads from person to person.
Most of the time, it spreads when a sick person coughs or sneezes. They can spray droplets as far as 6 feet away. If you breathe them in or swallow them, the virus can get into your body. Some people who have the virus don’t have symptoms, but they can still spread the virus.
- Copper: 4 hours
- Cardboard: up to 24 hours
- Plastic or stainless steel: 2 to 3 days
That’s why it’s important to disinfect surfaces to get rid of the virus.
What is community spread?
Doctors and health officials use this term when they don’t know the source of the infection. With COVID-19, it usually refers to someone who gets the virus even though they haven’t been out of the country or haven’t been exposed to someone who’s traveled abroad or who has COVID-19.
In February 2020, the CDC confirmed a COVID-19 infection in California in a person who had not traveled to an affected area or been exposed to someone with the disease. This marked the first instance of community spread in the U.S. It’s likely that person was exposed to someone who was infected but didn’t know it.
How fast is it spreading?
The number of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 changes every day. See our news story for the latest updates on this developing story.
How contagious is the coronavirus?
The transmission rate is relatively high. Early research has estimated that one person who has it can spread it to between 2 and 2.5 others. One study found that the rate was higher, with one case spreading to between 4.7 and 6.6 other people. By comparison, one person who has the seasonal flu will pass it to between 1.1 and 2.3 others.
We can work to lower the transmission rate by washing hands often, keeping common surfaces clean, and limiting contact with other people.
Can coronavirus be transmitted through groceries, packages, or food?
You’re much more likely to get COVID-19 from another person than from packages, groceries, or food. If you’re in a high-risk group, stay home and use a delivery service or have a friend shop for you. Have them leave the items outside your front door, if you can. If you do your own shopping, try to stay at least 6 feet away from other shoppers. That isn’t always possible, so wear a cloth face mask, too.
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after bringing things into your home. The coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces, so clean and disinfect countertops and anything else your bags have touched. You can wipe down plastic, metal, or glass packaging with soap and water if you want.
There’s no evidence that anyone has gotten COVID-19 from food or food containers.
Call your doctor or local health department if you think you’ve been exposed and have symptoms like:
- Fever of 100 F or higher
- Trouble breathing
In most states, decisions about who gets tested for COVID-19 are made at the state or local level.
A swab test looks for signs of the virus in your upper respiratory tract. The person giving the test puts a swab up your nose to get a sample from the back of your nose and throat. That sample goes to a lab that looks for viral material. If it’s there, the test is positive. A negative test could mean there is no virus or there wasn’t enough to measure. That can happen early in an infection. It usually takes 24 hours to get results, but the tests must be collected, stored, shipped to a lab, and processed.
The FDA is working with laboratories nationwide to develop more tests.
The agency is also granting emergency use authorizations to let doctors use tests it has yet to approve. These include tests that check your blood for things called antibodies. Your immune system makes antibodies in response to an infection.
A swab test can only tell whether you have the virus in your body at that moment. But an antibody test can show whether you’ve ever been exposed to the virus, even if you didn’t have symptoms. This is important in officials’ efforts to learn how widespread COVID-19 is. In time, it might also help them figure out who’s immune to the virus.
There’s no home test kit for COVID-19. The FDA is cracking down on these bogus products.
Take these steps:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water or clean them with an alcohol-based sanitizer. This kills viruses on your hands.
- Practice social distancing. Because you can have and spread the virus without knowing it, you should stay home as much as possible. If you do have to go out, stay at least 6 feet away from others.
- Cover your nose and mouth in public. If you have COVID-19, you can spread it even if you don’t feel sick. Wear a cloth face covering to protect others. This isn’t a replacement for social distancing. You still need to keep a 6-foot distance between yourself and those around you. Don’t use a face mask meant for health care workers. And don’t put a face covering on anyone who is:
- Under 2 years old
- Having trouble breathing
- Unconscious or can’t remove the mask on their own for other reasons
- Don’t touch your face. Coronaviruses can live on surfaces you touch for several hours. If they get on your hands and you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, they can get into your body.
- Clean and disinfect. You can clean first with soap and water, but disinfect surfaces you touch often, like tables, doorknobs, light switches, toilets, faucets, and sinks. Use a mix of household bleach and water (1/3 cup bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water) or a household cleaner that’s approved to treat SARS-CoV-2. You can check the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website to see if yours made the list. Wear gloves when you clean and throw them away when you’re done.
- Meet as a household or larger family to talk about who needs what.
- If you have people at a higher risk, ask their doctor what to do.
- Talk to your neighbors about emergency planning. Join your neighborhood chat group or website to stay in touch.
- Find community aid organizations that can help with health care, food delivery, and other supplies.
- Make an emergency contact list. Include family, friends, neighbors, carpool drivers, doctors, teachers, employers, and the local health department.
- Choose a room (or rooms) where you can keep someone who’s sick or who’s been exposed separate from the rest of you.
- Talk to your child’s school about keeping up with assignments.
- Set yourself up to work from home if your office is closed.
- Reach out friends or family if you live alone. Make plans for them to check on you by phone or email.
Can a face mask protect you from infection?
The CDC recommends that you wear a cloth face mask if you go out in public. This is an added layer of protection for everyone, on top of social distancing efforts. You can spread the virus when you talk or cough, even if you don’t know that you have it or if you aren’t showing signs of infection.
Surgical masks and N95 masks should be reserved for health care workers and first responders, the CDC says.
Is it safe to travel during a pandemic?
Crowded places can raise your chances of getting COVID-19. The CDC recommends against international or cruise ship travel during the pandemic.
A few questions may help you decide whether it’s safe to travel in the United States:
- Is the coronavirus spreading where you’re going?
- Will you have close contact with other people during the trip?
- Are you at higher risk of severe illness if you catch the virus?
- Do you live with someone who has a serious medical condition?
- Would you be able to stay home for 2 weeks if you came into contact with the virus on your trip?
- Social distancing or physical distancing, keeping space between yourself and other people when you have to go out
- Quarantine , keeping someone home and separated from other people if they might have been exposed to the virus
- Isolation , keeping sick people away from healthy people, including using a separate “sick” bedroom and bathroom when possible
There’s no vaccine, but intense research has been underway around the world since scientists shared the virus’ genetic makeup in January 2020. Vaccine testing in humans started with record speed in March 2020. More than 100 vaccine projects are in various phases of development.
One vaccine called mRNA-1273 (which was developed by using messenger RNA) would tell your cells to pump out a protein that will kick-start your immune system to fight the virus. It’s worked well in animals and is ready to test in humans.
There’s no specific treatment for COVID-19. People who get a mild case need care to ease their symptoms, like rest, fluids, and fever control. Take over-the-counter medicine for a sore throat, body aches, and fever. But don’t give aspirin to children or teens younger than 19. You might have heard that you shouldn’t take ibuprofen to treat COVID-19 symptoms — the World Health Organization made that statement in March 2020. But they reversed it soon after and said there’s no proof that taking it causes any harm.
Antibiotics won’t help because they treat bacteria, not viruses. If you hear about people with COVID-19 getting antibiotics, it’s for an infection that came along with the disease.