What Is Coronavirus — and How Worried Should You Be?

Plus, the best ways to protect yourself

This article was originally published on Feb. 5, 2020. It was updated on May 6, 2020, to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.

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In recent months, a new coronavirus disease called COVID-19 has spread from where it was first detected in China to every continent except Antarctica. The U.S. has the highest number of cases, with nearly 1.2 million people infected and more than 70,000 deaths. 

As the outbreak hit closer to home — and the news coverage became more alarming — you probably continue to wonder what this means for you, your family and your community.

“Like any novel infection that’s reported, it’s certainly a public health concern,” says Steven Gordon, MD, Chairman of the Department of Infectious Disease. And there is still much to learn about this new coronavirus disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that “the immune response to COVID-19 is not yet understood.” Because this is a new strain of coronavirus, scientists continue collecting information and research on the virus.

As the situation continues to evolve, infectious disease specialist Frank Esper, MD, encourages people to stay informed and follow common-sense practices like proper hand-washing and wearing cloth face masks in public to reduce the spread of viruses.

“This virus warrants our attention because it can cause very severe disease — but in 80% of people who get it, it does not,” he says.

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What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that are common in people and animals. They can cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from the common cold to severe pneumonia.

Coronaviruses spread from person to person through droplets released when people who are infected cough or sneeze. These infected droplets can land on people nearby, who can then become infected if the virus gets into their body through their eyes, nose or mouth.

So you could get COVID-19 from coming in close contact with an infected person who is coughing and sneezing, Dr. Gordon says. Experts also suspect that you can get it from touching a surface that has been contaminated with virus-containing droplets and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. That’s why the CDC recommends that you wear a cloth face mask in public to prevent the spread.

How do I know if I have COVID-19?

Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after being exposed and are what one would expect from a typical upper respiratory infection:

  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
  • Chills.
  • Fever.
  • Muscle pain.
  • New loss of taste or smell.
  • Sore throat.

“Unfortunately there is no truly identifying feature of this coronavirus that separates it from other viruses out there,” Dr. Esper says.

Other symptoms from nausea to diarrhea to COVID toes and rashes have also been reported.

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Most people who contract the virus will have mild symptoms and can recover on their own at home. But people over age 50 and people who have heart disease, lung disease or weakened immune systems seem to be more at risk for serious infections that could lead to pneumonia and difficulty breathing, Dr. Esper says. Children have symptoms similar to adult, but typically their illness is mild.

The only way to confirm that someone has COVID-19 is through a swab test. Efforts are underway to make testing more widely available in U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities. Because of this, Dr. Esper expects to see an uptick in the number of cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed and reported.

The priority: Prevention

People infected with this virus should receive supportive care such as rest, fluids and fever control, to help relieve symptoms. For severe cases, treatment should include care to support vital organ functions — and the FDA also granted an emergency use authorization for the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19.

But the best way to protect against it and any other upper respiratory infection is to practice good cold and flu season hygiene, Dr. Gordon says.

Actions to prevent the spread of viruses include:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Properly covering your nose and mouth with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough and sneeze.
  • Staying home from work if you’re not feeling well, whether you think you have something extremely contagious or not.
  • Wear a cloth face mask in public, especially in places where it’s hard to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and another person. Cloth face masks are being recommended because we now know individuals with COVID-19 could have mild or no symptoms, while still spreading the virus to others. The cloth face coverings recommended by the CDC are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders.
  • Disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, like doorknobs and handles.
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your face to prevent the spread of viruses from your hands.
  • Follow travel guidelines from the CDC.

If you think you may have been infected with the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider. They will ask about your symptoms and recent travel, and recommend what next steps you should take.

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