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Coronavirus: What you need to know

23 January 2020 in Health

A new type of virus that causes an infection of the lungs and airways has spread globally.

The virus, a type of coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

The first cases of the illness were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold live animals and meat. However, the viral infection (known as COVID-19) has since reached every region of the world.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reports that the virus has infected 20 330 351 cases people to date - of which 742 413 have died.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak to be a pandemic - the worldwide spread of a new disease.

With many questions surrounding the virus - such as where it came from, how it’s passed from human to human, and what people can do to reduce their risk of catching it - here’s what you need to know about the new coronavirus.
Woman holding up card with question mark

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can infect humans and animals. They are named after the crown-like spikes found on their surfaces - the word ‘corona’ means ‘crown’ in Latin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 7 types of coronavirus that can infect humans.

Of these, 4 are viruses that commonly cause respiratory tract infections, like the common cold, in humans. However, 3 are viruses that infect animals, but have evolved into a type of coronavirus that can also make humans sick.

These evolved coronaviruses include the new virus and those that caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks of 2003 and 2012, respectively.

The new coronavirus is called SARS-CoV-2, while the illness it causes is called COVID-19.

Infection symptoms

What are the symptoms?

Some coronavirus infections can be mild and cause either no symptoms or common cold symptoms, including:

  • a runny nose
  • a cough
  • a sore throat
  • sneezing

However, some infections can cause more severe symptoms, including:

  • a fever
  • a cough
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • muscle pain
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing

In the most severe cases, COVID-19 infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, sepsis, kidney failure and death.

Find out more about the range of symptoms and who is at most risk here.

If you have symptoms, you can use the COVID-19 Symptom Mapper to assess whether you have mild, moderate or severe symptoms and to understand how your symptoms compare with other people around the world.

Who is affected?

People of all ages are vulnerable to the coronavirus and may suffer mild, moderate or severe disease if infected. It's suspected that some people may have no symptoms (asymptomatic).

But certain people are more likely to suffer severe forms of COVID-19. They are:

  • people 70 or older
  • women who are pregnant
  • people who have a condition that may increase the risk from coronavirus

Conditions that put you at more risk include:

  • lung conditions, such as asthma, COPD, emphysema or bronchitis
  • heart disease, such as heart failure
  • chronic kidney disease
  • liver disease, such as hepatitis
  • conditions affecting the brain and nerves, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
  • diabetes
  • problems with your spleen – for example, sickle cell disease, or if you've had your spleen removed
  • a weakened immune system caused by conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
  • being very overweight (having a Body Mass Index of 40 or above)

How is it spread?

The new coronavirus can be passed from one person to another.

It's thought that like other coronavirus infections, SARS-CoV-2 spreads mainly via respiratory droplets released when an infected person sneezes, coughs or breathes out.

The virus can also survive for up to a few days on hard surfaces such as tables and door handles.

How can I protect myself?

The WHO recommends the following actions to reduce the spread of the infection:

  • regular hand washing with warm water and soap - wash for at least 20 seconds
  • covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing - the CDC recommends using a tissue or your sleeve instead of your hands
  • throwing used tissues away immediately
  • using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available
  • cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces

A growing number of governments, experts and health agencies are telling people to wear a face mask or cover their face in some form when they're out in public. But the WHO say there is no storng evidence to support doing this. Here’s the advice that’s out there.

You should also avoid close contact with farm or wild animals, and anyone with symptoms that suggest they may have a throat, airway or lung infection. These are symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

If you think you may have had close contact with an infected person, contact a doctor for advice. They may ask you to self-isolate for up to 14 days.
Woman washing hands with soap

How is it treated?

There's no vaccine to reduce your risk of catching the new coronavirus infection and there is no specific treatment for it. Like the common cold and other coronavirus infections, many cases of COVID-19 currently appear to resolve on their own in time.

However, if you have seen a doctor and they think your illness is mild, there are things you can do to help improve your symptoms. These include:

  • taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, to manage pain and reduce a high temperature
  • using a room humidifier or taking a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
  • drinking plenty of liquids
  • resting at home

If you’re concerned about your symptoms, or your symptoms get worse or don’t improve with self-care, contact a doctor or healthcare provider immediately.

Coronavirus infographic

Do I need to stay away from other people?

While the outbreak is ongoing, health agencies and governments worldwide recommend that you should stay at home to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. This is a practice known as physical distancing (or social distancing) and involves staying at least 1 to 2 metres away from others when out in public.

Read about how to keep a safe distance from others during the coronavirus outbreak.

Some people who have symptoms, signs or risk factors that suggest they may have been exposed to the new coronavirus may be asked to avoid all in-person contact with other people for up to 14 days. This is known as self-isolation.

If you are told to self-isolate, you should:

  • stay at home
  • try not to be in the same room as others at the same time
  • use separate towels, bedding and kitchenware from anyone else in the household
  • avoid using public transport or taxis
  • avoid going to work, school or other public places
  • not invite visitors into your home

If you think you may have coronavirus, you can use our COVID-19 Symptom Mapper to check your symptoms and compare them with others around the world.

This should give you a better understanding of how the illness is affecting you and will help us to map the spread of the outbreak.


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Novel Coronavirus 2019 [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Coronavirus | Human Coronavirus Types | CDC [Internet]. Cdc.gov. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

CDC SARS Response Timeline | About | CDC [Internet]. Cdc.gov. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Coronavirus [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Flu [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Novel Coronavirus in China - Alert - Level 2, Practice Enhanced Precautions - Travel Health Notices | Travelers' Health | CDC [Internet]. Wwwnc.cdc.gov. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Coronavirus | About | Prevention and Treatment | CDC [Internet]. Cdc.gov. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Novel Coronavirus – China [Internet]. World Health Organization. 2020 [cited 23 January 2020]. Available here.

Novel coronavirus in China [Internet]. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. 2020 [cited 27 January 2020]. Available here.

Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 1 February 2020]. Available here.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 3 March 2020]. Available here.

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Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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