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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The 2019 coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is a new illness that affects the airways and lungs. It’s caused by a type of virus, known as a coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can infect humans and animals. Some cause mild respiratory infections, such as the common cold, while others cause more severe illnesses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has not been seen in humans before.

Symptoms of coronavirus

The symptoms are usually mild and tend to develop slowly. They generally appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, and include:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • tiredness
  • aches and pains
  • blocked or runny nose
  • sore throat
  • diarrhoea

In some cases, the condition doesn’t cause any symptoms.

It’s thought that the majority of people (4 in 5) who catch the virus get better without special treatment. However, a small number can develop pneumonia and difficulty breathing, which can be life-threatening.

Your risk of developing a serious illness increases if you are elderly or have an existing medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes.

It's thought that some people with coronavirus may temporarily lose their sense of smell and taste, but health organisations are currently not calling this an official symptom of the illness.

When to worry about coronavirus

Seek medical help immediately if you have symptoms of coronavirus:

  • difficulty breathing
  • a fever
  • a new, continuous cough

Do not go to your doctor’s office or the emergency room, instead call your country's dedicated coronavirus helpline. If it's an emergency, phone for an ambulance and tell them your symptoms so that measures can be taken to reduce the risk of infecting others.

If you live with or have been in contact with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days. This means you should stay at home and avoid being in the same room as others in your house. You can read more about how to self-isolate in the 'avoiding contact with others' section below.

How the coronavirus is spread

The coronavirus can be passed from one person to another. However, as it’s a new illness, research on exactly how the virus is spread is ongoing.

It’s thought that the virus is passed from person to person in small droplets that are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Others can catch the infection if they breathe in these droplets or if they touch an object or surface the droplets have landed on and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

How to avoid catching the coronavirus

At present, there is no vaccine to reduce your risk of catching the coronavirus. Because the infection is most likely spread through cough droplets, you can reduce your risk of infection by:

  • covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when coughing or sneezing
  • washing your hands regularly with warm water and soap - wash for at least 20 seconds
  • throwing used tissues away immediately
  • using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available
  • avoiding close contact with people who are unwell
  • not touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean

Avoiding contact with others

Some people who have symptoms, signs or risk factors that suggest they may have been exposed to the new coronavirus may be asked to stay away from 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
  • avoid using public transport or taxis
  • avoid going to work, school or other public places
  • not invite visitors into your home

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). There are many ways to keep a safe distance from others during the coronavirus outbreak, including:

  • not using public transport unless it is necessary
  • working from home where possible
  • not meeting friends, family or anyone outside of your household
  • avoiding small and large public gatherings
  • using phone or online services to contact your doctor or healthcare provider

You should stay at home and only go out for essential trips, like buying food.

How to treat the coronavirus

At present, there is no specific medication to prevent or treat the coronavirus. The current treatment for anyone with the infection includes supportive care to treat symptoms.

As it is caused by a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics, which work against bacteria, not viruses.

To find out more about the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus hub.

To separate coronavirus facts from myths, visit covid-19facts.com.

Written on 24 February 2020

Reviewed on 6 April 2020


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Evans M. Coronavirus: What you need to know | Spread, vaccination, infection, travel [Internet]. Patient.info. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) - Your.MD [Internet]. Your.MD. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Mers - Your.MD [Internet]. Your.MD. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19) [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

Novel Coronavirus in China - Warning - Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel - Travel Health Notices | Travelers' Health | CDC [Internet]. Wwwnc.cdc.gov. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

Common questions about coronavirus (COVID-19) [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 25 February 2020]. Available here.

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