Human coronaviruses (HCov) are a group of respiratory viruses that affect both humans and animals. First discovered in the 1960s, the viruses received their name for the spikey protein projections that give the virus particles a crown-like (“corona”) shape. Human coronaviruses primarily affect patients in the fall, winter, and early spring. They’re very contagious, spreading between humans through skin-to-skin contact, contaminated surfaces, and airborne droplets from inadequately covered coughs or sneezes.
There are seven known strains of human coronavirus. Some are found everywhere and often lead to mild illnesses like the common cold. Others, like the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS coronavirus) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS coronavirus), can cause more severe symptoms, developing into acute conditions like pneumonia and bronchitis if they infect a person’s lower respiratory tract.
In late 2019, a novel coronavirus named SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged and began affecting humans in the Hubei Province of China. The virus is highly contagious, meaning that it travels easily from human to human, and causes an illness that we now know as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 5.5 million confirmed cases of the new coronavirus disease since December 2019, and more than 100,000 patients have died from it in the United States alone.
Though our understanding of this disease is still evolving, global health officials have learned a great deal about the condition since it first emerged. So, what is coronavirus? How is coronavirus spread? How long does coronavirus last? And what do you need to know to keep you and your loved ones safe? In this article, I’ll cover what is known about this fast-developing public health issue, including:
Fast Facts on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Since the disease first emerged in late 2019, there have been nearly 5.6 million global cases of COVID-19. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain are currently the hardest-hit countries in the world, with over 1.7 million cases confirmed in the United States alone.
According to the World Health Organization, most patients who develop coronavirus symptoms will recover without requiring hospitalization or special treatment. Older adults, people who are immunocompromised, and people with certain underlying conditions are the most likely to develop severe symptoms.
Although scientists are working diligently to develop future coronavirus treatment options, there is currently no coronavirus vaccine or licensed drug specifically approved for patients that contract the disease.
While some patient cases in South Korea initially raised concerns that people who recovered from COVID-19 could quickly contract it again, new coronavirus reinfection data suggests that is not the case. Once patients have recovered from coronavirus, they are protected from becoming reinfected in the short term.
The best way to prevent coronavirus transmission is to wash your hands frequently, refrain from touching your face, avoid going into crowded places, keep 3-6 feet of distance from other people, follow good respiratory hygiene, and stay home and self-isolate if you believe you are suffering from even the mildest symptoms of coronavirus.
What Is Coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a group of illnesses that cause respiratory infections ranging from a mild cold to more severe pneumonia and less commonly, death. Coronaviruses are highly contagious. They are most common in animals like birds, pigs, cattle, camels, dogs, cats, and bats, but are zoonotic, meaning that very rarely, specific strains can pass from animals to humans, and later, from humans to other humans. When that happens, those coronavirus strains can be difficult to contain.
In December 2019, a new human coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 began developing into an illness called Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19. The disease was first discovered affecting people in the Hubei province of mainland China but quickly became a global health threat, spreading to other countries including the United States. In late January 2020, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization had declared the new virus a “public health emergency of international concern,” the sixth time this declaration has been made in the last ten years.
As of May 2020, COVID-19 has been confirmed in 188 countries and territories and all 50 states in the United States of America. It is now considered the worst global pandemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic that affected a third of the world’s population a little over a century ago. Want to learn more about the spread of coronavirus in your area? Click here to find out more about the cases near you.
Coronavirus vs. the flu
Coronavirus and influenza (flu) are both respiratory illnesses that are highly contagious, uncomfortable, and can be, in some cases, fatal for the person who contracts them. But that is where the similarities end. The coronavirus spreads much more easily and more rapidly than the flu and can be much more deadly. Some estimates suggest that it is capable of killing up to 20 times as many individuals as the flu does.
Although patients with coronavirus and the flu share many of the same symptoms, including cough, fever, body aches and chills, and stomach upset, among others, the coronavirus can also lead patients to develop body rashes, cardiovascular complications, kidney failure, and, in the case of some children and adolescents, multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
The signs and symptoms of coronavirus vary widely from patient to patient. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone that contracts the disease can show mild to severe symptoms, but older patients and people with underlying conditions are the most likely to develop serious complications. Most people recover from coronavirus without requiring hospitalization or special treatment.
Symptoms can appear between 2-14 days after initial exposure. Most people develop symptoms within 5-6 days after they were exposed. Patients in the early stages of a coronavirus may be pre-symptomatic, meaning that they won’t show symptoms for days or weeks after they become infected. Some patients are asymptomatic, meaning that even though they are infected with the coronavirus, they never experience symptoms. All patients with coronavirus, whether or not they show symptoms, are contagious and can spread the infection to others.
Patients who have COVID-19 most often experience:
Less common symptoms also include:
- Loss of taste and/or loss of smell
- Nausea and vomiting (throwing up)
- Abdominal pain or diarrhea
- Lack of appetite
- Sore throat
- A congested or runny nose
- Feelings of dizziness or delirium
- A rash, hives, or chicken pox lesions
- Skin discoloration on fingers or toes
Most people with a coronavirus diagnosis will experience mild to moderate symptoms and can manage their illness at home. If you are experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain, chest pressure, or chest tightness, inability to wake up or stay awake, a bluish tinge to lips or face, confusion, difficulty talking, or difficulty moving normally, seek medical attention immediately. If you have time, call the nearest emergency room before you arrive to make sure that health care staff is adequately prepared. They may direct you to a special location for suspected coronavirus patients, but don’t delay emergency care to make this phone call.
Can you have coronavirus without a fever?
Although every patient is capable of experiencing coronavirus symptoms differently, between 83%-99% of individuals with the virus will develop a fever at some point in their illness, while 59-82% of patients will develop a cough, and up to 70% will feel significant fatigue. For a small subset of patients who have coronavirus, throwing up, nausea, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues may be the first or most significant symptoms that they experience.
Causes and Transmission of Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Scientists have traced an early coronavirus outbreak to people who had direct contact with a large live animal and seafood market in Wuhan City, though investigations into the early origins of the disease are ongoing.
What health officials do know is that the virus is highly contagious and primarily spread when a healthy person comes into close contact (less than six feet) with an infected person. When someone with coronavirus speaks, coughs, or sneezes and inadequately covers their mouth and nose, they produce airborne droplets that can carry the disease into other people’s mouths, noses, and eyes.
Scientists believe that, though it is rare, healthy people can contract the virus by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their lips, nose, or eyes. How long does coronavirus last outside the body after it lands on contaminated surfaces? Results vary depending on the surface the disease lands on and the temperature of the environment it’s in. Cleaning contaminated surfaces with chemical agents like bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or ethanol, though, has been shown to quickly and effectively kill the virus and stop it from spreading further.
The best ways to avoid contracting coronavirus or spreading it to others include staying more than six feet away from others, avoiding large crowds and infected people, keeping your hands away from your face, nose, eyes, and lips, wearing a mask when you are out in public, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, and washing your hands frequently.
Coronavirus Treatment Options
Because COVID-19 has just recently emerged as a disease of concern, there is no current vaccination that can help prevent infection. There is also no current recommended medical treatment or licensed drug used specifically for the disease, though patients who are suffering from COVID-19 should receive supportive care to help relieve symptoms they might experience.
There are two kinds of coronavirus tests available for patients in the United States:
- A coronavirus viral test: This test checks to see if you have an active coronavirus infection. Health care professionals insert a 6-inch cotton swab into each nostril and rotate it to swab the cavity between your nose and mouth and collect enough material to test for the disease. Some testing sites are equipped to give you your results within minutes, others require a few days or weeks to determine your results. A positive test result means that you have coronavirus.
- A coronavirus antibody test: This test checks your blood for antibodies that would indicate a past coronavirus infection. Health care professionals collect a sample of your blood through a finger prick and screen it for antibodies in a lab. A positive test result means that you have already had coronavirus and recovered from it.
Wondering “where can I find coronavirus testing near me?” The availability of coronavirus rapid test options vary from state to state and from district to district. If you believe you are ill and are wondering where to get tested for coronavirus, click here for a list of local resources or call your doctor for information.
If you test positive for the coronavirus and are diagnosed with the disease, you will be asked to restrict your movements or quarantine yourself inside your home for an extended period. You may also be asked to separate yourself from other people, your pets, and other animals, and avoid sharing personal household items. It is critically important that you cooperate completely with all medical instructions to ensure that you do not inadvertently spread the virus to others.
Coronavirus Prevention and Safety Tips
Avoiding the disease entirely is the best way to keep from getting sick. Given how easily and rapidly the disease spreads from person to person, many communities have temporarily reduced or eliminated public access to events and gathering spaces, businesses, bars, restaurants, and other spaces to reduce the rate of local transmission. Please visit your state health department website to learn more about your local regulations, and how to stay safe in your area.
In addition to state and local government regulations, the CDC urges all Americans to take extra precautions when traveling and to avoid traveling if you have been sick or if you have been around someone who has been sick within the last two weeks.
To prevent getting sick, you should also:
- Avoid close contact with people who are ill, even inside your home.
- Stay at least six feet away from other people when outside of your home.
- Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water, for more than 20 seconds.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with your hands when you are out in public.
- Do not gather in groups and stay away from crowded places and events.
- Wear a face mask or cloth face cover when you go out in public to avoid spreading germs.
- Wear gloves if you are cleaning or caring for someone who is sick.
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue, not your hand, and wash your hands immediately afterward.
- Clean and disinfect common surfaces and frequently touched items daily. Use detergent or soap on dirty surfaces before wiping them down with a disinfectant.
- Get your influenza vaccination.
- Monitor your health closely; if any symptoms develop, call your doctor right away.
Do surgical masks protect against coronavirus?
The CDC suggests wearing cloth masks in public as a precautionary measure to protect against coronaviruses or other diseases and to avoid spreading any diseases to others. Non-health care workers should avoid wearing surgical masks or N-95 masks to keep supplies available to health care workers and first responders. Wearing a cloth or paper mask mask does not cause low oxygen levels (hypoxia) or high carbon dioxide levels (hypercarbia). Cloth masks can be washed and reused. If regularly washed, cloth masks do not increase the risk of pneumonia or lung infections.
Risk Factors and Complications
Health officials are still learning about the risk factors and complications associated with coronavirus (COVID-19), but certain individuals may be more at risk than others. They include:
- Older adults (aged 65 years and older)
- People who live in a nursing home or elder care facility
- People who have chronic lung disease such as asthma or COPD
- People who have liver disease, kidney disease, or who are undergoing dialysis
- People who have heart conditions
- People with severe obesity (a Body Mass Index of 40 or higher)
- People with diabetes
- People with hemoglobin disorders like sickle cell disease
- People who are immunocompromised because of cancer, HIV/AIDS, organ or bone marrow transplantation, smoking, or because they take immune-compromising medication
It is important to note that information on COVID-19 is constantly changing. Other people who may be at higher risk include women who are pregnant or nursing, people with mental, physical, and behavioral disorders and their caretakers, people experiencing homelessness, direct service providers and essential workers, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. If you fall into one of those demographics, consider taking extra precautions until we learn more. As scientists learn more about this virus, protocols, and recommendations, we will update this article to keep you informed.
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing symptoms related to coronavirus or believe you may have been exposed to the disease, locate and call your nearest testing facility or call a doctor to discuss your next steps. Isolate yourself, even from members of your household, and stay home except to get tested or to receive medical care. If you must leave your home, wear a mask at all times.
Continue to isolate yourself as you await your test results and as you recover from your illness. Take care of yourself, track your symptoms, and stay in touch with your doctor. The CDC recommends that you should only begin to consider being around others after you have had three consecutive days without a fever, and your other symptoms have improved, and it’s been at least ten days since your symptoms first appeared. If you have a weakened immune system or other risk factors, you may need to stay isolated longer than others. Contact a doctor for individual guidance.
It can be scary to be diagnosed with coronavirus, but most people who have a coronavirus diagnosis will experience mild to moderate symptoms and can manage their illness entirely at home. If you start to experience any of the following emergency warning signs (or any other symptoms that seem severe or concerning to you) seek emergency care immediately.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Chest pain, chest pressure, or chest tightness
- Confusion or disorientation
- Bluish tinge to the lips or face
- Difficulty talking or moving normally
- Inability to wake up or stay awake
If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. If you have time to safely do so, call the ER before you arrive to make sure that healthcare staff is adequately prepared. You may be directed to an alternate entrance for patients suspected to have coronavirus.
How K Health Can Help
Stay up-to-date on all things related to COVID-19. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.