Everything You Should Know About the 2019 Coronavirus and COVID-19
In early 2020, a new virus began generating headlines all over the world because of the unprecedented speed of its transmission.
From its origins in a food market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 to countries as far-flung as the United States and the Philippines, the virus (officially named SARS-CoV-2) has affected hundreds of thousands, with a rising death toll now over 17,000.
The disease caused by an infection with SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
In spite of the global panic in the news about this virus, you’re unlikely to contract SARS-CoV-2 unless you’ve been in contact with someone who has a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Let’s bust some myths. Read on to learn how this 2019 coronavirus is spread, how it’s similar and different from other coronaviruses, and how to prevent spreading it to others if you suspect you’ve contracted this virus.
What are the symptoms?
Doctors are learning new things about this virus every day. So far, we know that COVID-19 may not initially cause any symptoms for some people.
You may carry the virus for 2 days or up to 2 weeksbefore you notice symptoms.
Some common symptoms that have been specifically linked to COVID-19 include:
- shortness of breath
- having a cough that gets more severe over time
- a low-grade fever that gradually increases in temperature
These symptoms may become more severe in some people. Call emergency medical services if you or someone you care for have any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing
- blue lips or face
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- excessive drowsiness
The full list of symptoms is still being investigated.
What to do if you have symptoms of COVID-19
If you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus that causes COVID-19, you should seek medical care.
You have several options for obtaining medical care, including being seen by your primary healthcare provider. The CDC recommends calling your provider first so that they can take the necessary steps to prepare for your visit and protect others from possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.
Some healthcare providers also offer virtual visits through your smartphone or laptop, so you may not need to leave your home for an initial assessment.
If you don’t have a primary healthcare provider, you can use this tool to find a local primary care office in your area.
If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Notify the operator that you have COVID-19 or suspect exposure to the virus that causes it. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.
COVID-19 versus the flu
We are still learning about whether the 2019 coronavirus is more or less deadly than the seasonal flu.
This is difficult to determine because the number of total cases (including mild cases in people who don’t seek treatment or get tested) is unknown. However, early evidence suggests that this coronavirus causes more deaths than the seasonal flu.
An estimated 0.06 to 0.1 percent of people who developed the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season in the United Stated died (as of March 14, 2020). This is compared to 1.2 percent of those with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States.
Here are some common symptoms of the flu:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- body aches
Get updates on COVID-19 plus support for managing your health.
What causes coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic. This means they first develop in animals before developing in humans.
For the virus to pass from animal to humans, a person has to come into close contact with an animal that carries the infection.
Once the virus develops in people, coronaviruses can be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. This is a technical name for the wet stuff that moves through the air when you cough or sneeze.
The viral material hangs out in these droplets and can be breathed into the respiratory tract (your windpipe and lungs), where the virus can then lead to an infection.
The 2019 coronavirus hasn’t been definitively linked to a specific animal.
Researchers believe that the virus may have been passed from bats to another animal — either snakes or pangolins — and then transmitted to humans. This transmission likely occurred in the open food market in Wuhan, China.
Who’s at increased risk?
You’re at high risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 if you come into contact with someone who’s carrying it, especially if you’ve been exposed to their saliva or been near them when they’ve coughed or sneezed.
Without taking proper prevention measures, you’re also at high risk if you:
- live with someone who has contracted the virus
- are providing home care for someone who has contracted the virus
- have an intimate partner who has contracted the virus
HANDWASHING IS KEY
Washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces can help decrease your risk for catching this and other viruses.
Older people and people with certain health conditions have a higher risk for severe complications if they contract the virus. These health conditions include:
- lung conditions, such as COPD and asthma
- certain heart conditions
- immune system conditions, such as HIV
- cancer that requires treatment
- severe obesity
- other health conditions, if not well-controlled, such as diabetes, kidney disease, or liver disease
Pregnant women have a higher risk of complications from other viral infections, but it’s not yet known if this is the case for the 2019 coronavirus.
How are coronaviruses diagnosed?
COVID-19 can be diagnosed similarly to other conditions caused by viral infections: using a blood, saliva, or tissue sample. However, most tests use a cotton swab to retrieve a sample from the inside of your nostrils.
Tests are conducted by the CDC, some state health departments, and some commercial companies. See your state’s health department website to find out where testing is offered near you.
Talk to your doctor right away if you think you have COVID-19 or you notice symptoms. Your doctor will advise you on whether you should stay home and monitor your symptoms, come in to the doctor’s office to be evaluated, or go to the hospital for more urgent care.
What treatments are available?
There’s currently no treatment specifically approved for COVID-19, and no cure for an infection, although treatments and vaccines are currently under study. Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms as the virus runs its course.
Seek immediate medical help if you think you have COVID-19. Your doctor will recommend treatment for any symptoms or complications that develop.
Other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS are also treated by managing symptoms. In some cases, experimental treatments are tested to see how effective they are. Examples of therapies used for these illnesses include:
- antiviral or retroviral medications
- breathing support, such as mechanical ventilation
- steroids to reduce lung swelling
- blood plasma transfusions
What are the possible complications from COVID-19?
The most serious complication of a SARS-CoV-2 infection is a type of pneumonia that’s been called 2019 novel coronavirus-infected pneumonia (NCIP).
Results from a 2020 study of 138 people admitted into hospitals in Wuhan, China, with NCIP found that 26 percent of those admitted had severe cases and needed to be treated in the intensive care unit (ICU).
About 4.3 percent of these people who were admitted to the ICU died from this type of pneumonia. It should be noted that people who were admitted to the ICU were on average older and had more underlying health conditions than people who didn’t go to the ICU.
So far, NCIP is the only complication specifically linked to the 2019 coronavirus. Researchers have seen the following complications in people who have developed COVID-19:
- acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- irregular heart rate (arrhythmia)
- cardiovascular shock
- severe muscle pain (myalgia)
- heart damage or heart attack
How to prevent coronaviruses
The best way to prevent the spread of infection is to avoid or limit contact with people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or any respiratory infection.
The next best thing you can do is practice good hygiene and social distancing to prevent bacteria and viruses from spreading.
- Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds at a time with warm water and soap. How long is 20 seconds? About as long as it takes to sing your “ABCs.”
- Don’t touch your face, eyes, nose, or mouth when your hands are dirty.
- Don’t go out if you’re feeling sick or have any cold or flu symptoms.
- Stay at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
- Cover your mouth with the inside of your elbow whenever you sneeze or cough. Throw away any tissues you use right away.
- Clean any objects you touch a lot. Use disinfectants on objects like phones, computers, utensils, dishware, and doorknobs.
Other types of coronaviruses
A coronavirus gets its name from the way it looks under a microscope.
The word corona means “crown,” and when examined closely, the round virus has a “crown” of proteins called peplomers jutting out from its center in every direction. These proteins help the virus identify whether it can infect its host.
The condition known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was also linked to a highly infectious coronavirus back in the early 2000s. The SARS virus has since been contained.
COVID-19 vs. SARS
This isn’t the first time a coronavirus has made news — the 2003 SARS outbreak was also caused by a coronavirus.
As with the 2019 virus, the SARS virus was first found in animals before it spread to humans.
The SARS virus is thought to have come from bats and then transferred to another animal, and then to humans.
Once transmitted to humans, the SARS virus began spreading quickly among people.
What makes the novel coronavirus so newsworthy is that a treatment or cure hasn’t yet been developed to help prevent its rapid spread from person to person. SARS has been successfully contained.
What’s the outlook?
First and foremost, don’t panic. You don’t need to wear a mask or be quarantined unless you suspect you have contracted the virus or have a confirmed test result.
Following simple handwashing and social distancing guidelines may help protect you from being exposed to the virus.
The 2019 coronavirus probably seems scary when you read the news about new deaths, quarantines, and travel bans.
Stay calm and follow your doctor’s instructions if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 so you can recover and help prevent it from spreading.