Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that originated in China.
The virus is now known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in a growing number of countries, including the U.S. Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are monitoring the situation and posting updates on their websites. WHO declared a global pandemic in March 2020. These groups have also issued recommendations for preventing and treating the illness.
Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 may appear two to 14 days after exposure and can include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Other symptoms can include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
The severity of COVID-19 symptoms can range from very mild to severe. Some people have no symptoms. People who are older or have existing chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes, may be at higher risk of serious illness. This is similar to what is seen with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza.
When to see a doctor
Contact your doctor or clinic right away if you have COVID-19 symptoms, you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or you live in or have traveled from an area with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 as determined by CDC and WHO. Call your doctor ahead to tell him or her about your symptoms and recent travels and possible exposure before you go to your appointment.
Anyone with respiratory symptoms who hasn’t been in an area with ongoing community spread can contact his or her doctor or clinic for further recommendations and guidance. Let your doctor know if you have other chronic medical conditions. As the pandemic progresses, it’s important to make sure health care is available for those in greatest need.
It’s unclear exactly how contagious the new coronavirus is. It appears to spread from person to person among those in close contact. It may be spread by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.
It may also be spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes.
Risk factors for COVID-19 appear to include:
- Recent travel from or residence in an area with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 as determined by CDC or WHO
- Close contact with someone who has COVID-19 — such as when a family member or health care worker takes care of an infected person
Complications can include:
- Pneumonia in both lungs
- Organ failure in several organs
Although there is no vaccine available to prevent infection with the new coronavirus, you can take steps to reduce your risk of infection. WHO and CDC recommend following these precautions for avoiding COVID-19:
- Avoid large events and mass gatherings.
- Avoid close contact (about 6 feet) with anyone who is sick or has symptoms.
- Keep distance between yourself and others if COVID-19 is spreading in your community, especially if you have a higher risk of serious illness.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the used tissue.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands aren’t clean.
- Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding and other household items if you’re sick.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you often touch on a daily basis.
- Stay home from work, school and public areas if you’re sick, unless you’re going to get medical care. Avoid taking public transportation if you’re sick.
CDC doesn’t recommend that healthy people wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Only wear a mask if a health care provider tells you to do so.
WHO also recommends that you:
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat or animal organs.
- Avoid contact with live animals and surfaces they may have touched if you’re visiting live markets in areas that have recently had new coronavirus cases.
If you have a chronic medical condition and may have a higher risk of serious illness, check with your doctor about other ways to protect yourself.
If you’re planning to travel internationally, first check the CDC and WHO websites for updates and advice. Also look for any health advisories that may be in place where you plan to travel. You may also want to talk with your doctor if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.