In ancient 2020, a new virus began generating headlines throughout the world due to the unprecedented rate 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 tens of thousands, with a rising death toll now over 4,000.
The disease caused by an infection with SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 19.
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’s confirmed to have the virus.
Let’s bust some myths. Read on to learn how this 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.
Information on the new coronavirus is coming out rapidly. Accuracy of the following information is subject to change. To stay up to date, check here.
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.
You may carry the virus for 2 days or up to 2 weeksTrusted Source before 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
The full list of symptoms is still being investigated.
COVID-19 versus the flu
The 2019 coronavirus is much more deadly than seasonal flu.
An estimated 0.06 to 0.1 percent Trusted Source of people who developed the flu during the 2019–2020 flu season in the United States died (as of February 2020), compared to around 3 percentTrusted Source 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
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.
Older men seem to be especially susceptible to the virus. A late January report by the World Health Organization (WHO)Trusted Source found that the median age of people testing positive for this coronavirus was around 45 years and that over two-thirds of those people were male.
How are coronaviruses diagnosed?
COVID-19 can be diagnosed similarly to other conditions caused by viral infections: using a blood, saliva, or tissue sample. Currently, in the United States, 78 state and local public health labs across 50 states can testTrusted Source for it, with a current capacity to test 75,000 people.
The CDC stated that different states will have differing capacity and policies, but that doctors can call those labs to find out how to test their patients.
Talk to your doctor right away if you think you have COVID-19 or you notice symptoms. Your doctor will speak to local public health officials to provide guidance on whether testing for the virus is needed.
A lab technician will either draw a sample of your blood with a needle or use a cotton swab to take a small sample of saliva or respiratory secretions from your nose or the back of your throat.
The sample is then sent to a testing facility to confirm the presence of viral material or antibodies that respond to the virus.
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 do have vaccines and treatments. Some treatments for these similar viruses 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 studyTrusted Source 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.
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 to prevent bacteria and viruses from spreading.
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 and the condition found to be successfully treatable.
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 toTrusted Source 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 and treated.