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What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 stands for "coronavirus disease 2019." It is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. The virus first appeared in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world.
People with COVID-19 can have fever, cough, trouble breathing, and other symptoms. Problems with breathing happen when the infection affects the lungs and causes pneumonia.
Most people who get COVID-19 will not get severely ill. But some do. In many areas, people have been told to stay home and away from other people. This is to try to slow the spread of the virus.
How is COVID-19 spread?
The virus that causes COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person. This usually happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks near other people. The virus is passed through tiny "droplets" from the infected person's lungs and airway. These droplets can easily travel several feet through the air. In some cases, like in indoor spaces where the same air keeps being blown around, droplets might be able to spread to other people who are more than a few feet away.
The virus can be passed easily between people who live together. But it can also spread at gatherings where people are talking close together, shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, or even singing together. Eating at restaurants raises the risk of infection, since people tend to be close to each other and not covering their faces. Doctors also think it is possible to get infected if you touch a surface that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
It is also possible for the virus to spread from an infected person to an animal, like a pet. But this seems to be uncommon. There is no evidence that a person could get the virus from a pet.
A person can be infected, and spread the virus to others, even without having any symptoms. This is why keeping people apart is one of the best ways to slow the spread.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Symptoms usually start 4 or 5 days after a person is infected with the virus. But in some people, it can take up to 2 weeks for symptoms to appear. Some people never show symptoms at all.
When symptoms do happen, they can include:
Problems with sense of smell or taste
Some people have digestive problems like nausea or diarrhea. There have also been some reports of rashes or other skin symptoms. For example, some people with COVID-19 get reddish-purple spots on their fingers or toes. But it's not clear why or how often this happens.
For most people, symptoms will get better within a few weeks. But some people continue to have some symptoms for weeks or months. This seems to be more likely in people who are sick enough to need to stay in the hospital. Doctors are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19.
While children can get COVID-19, they are less likely than adults to have severe symptoms. More information about COVID-19 and children is available separately.
Am I at risk for getting seriously ill?
It depends on your age and health. In some people, COVID-19 leads to serious problems like pneumonia, not getting enough oxygen, heart problems, or even death. This risk gets higher as people get older. It is also higher in people who have other health problems like serious heart disease, chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sickle cell disease, or obesity. People who have a weak immune system for other reasons (for example, HIV infection or certain medicines), asthma, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, or high blood pressure might also be at higher risk for serious problems.
What should I do if I have symptoms?
If you have a fever, cough, trouble breathing, or other symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor or nurse. They will ask about your symptoms. They might also ask about any recent travel and whether you have been around anyone who might have been infected.
If your symptoms are not severe, it is best to call before you go in. The staff can tell you what to do and whether you need to be seen in person. Many people with only mild symptoms should stay home and avoid other people until they get better. If you do need to go to the clinic or hospital, wear a mask to cover your nose and mouth. This helps protect other people. The staff might also have you wait someplace away from other people.
If you are severely ill and need to go to the clinic or hospital right away, you should still call ahead if possible. This way the staff can care for you while taking steps to protect others. If you think you are having a medical emergency, call for an ambulance (in the US and Canada, dial 9-1-1).
Is there a test for the virus that causes COVID-19?
Yes. If your doctor or nurse suspects you have COVID-19, they might take a swab from inside your nose or mouth for testing. In some cases, they might take a sample of your saliva. These tests can help your doctor figure out if you have COVID-19 or another illness.
In some places you need to see a doctor or nurse to get tested. In other places, there are organizations that make testing available for anyone. Depending on the lab, it can take up to several days to get test results back.
The tests used to diagnose COVID-19 are either "nucleic acid tests" or "antigen tests." Nucleic acid tests look for the genetic material from the virus. Antigen tests look for proteins from the virus. Antigen tests can give results much faster. But they are not as accurate as nucleic acid tests. They are more likely to give "false negative" results. This is when the test comes back negative even though the person actually is infected.
If you think you might have been exposed to the virus, but you are not able to get a test, your doctor will tell you what to do. They might tell you to stay home, avoid other people, and call if your symptoms get worse.
There is also a blood test that can show if a person has had COVID-19 in the past. This is called an "antibody" test. Antibody tests are generally not used on their own to diagnose COVID-19 or make decisions about care. But experts can use them to learn how many people in a certain area were infected without knowing it. Experts are not yet sure how long antibodies last after infection.
How is COVID-19 treated?
Many people will be able to stay home while they get better. But people with serious symptoms or other health problems might need to go to the hospital.
Mild illness – Mild illness means you might have symptoms like fever and cough, but you do not have trouble breathing. Most people with COVID-19 have mild illness and can rest at home until they get better. This usually takes about 2 weeks, but it's not the same for everyone.
If you are recovering from COVID-19, it's important to stay home and "self-isolate" until your doctor or nurse tells you it's safe to go back to your normal activities. Self-isolation means staying apart from other people, even the people you live with. When you can stop self-isolation will depend on how long it has been since you had symptoms, and in some cases, whether you have had a negative test (showing that the virus is no longer in your body).
Severe illness – If you have more severe illness with trouble breathing, you might need to stay in the hospital, possibly in the intensive care unit (also called the "ICU"). While you are there, you will most likely be in a special isolation room. Only medical staff will be allowed in the room, and they will have to wear special gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection.
The doctors and nurses can monitor and support your breathing and other body functions and make you as comfortable as possible. You might need extra oxygen to help you breathe easily. If you are having a very hard time breathing, you might need to be put on a ventilator. This is a machine to help you breathe.
Doctors are studying several possible treatments for COVID-19. In certain cases, doctors might recommend medicines that seem to help some people who are severely ill. They also might recommend being part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a scientific study that tests new medicines to see how well they work. Do not try any new medicines or treatments without talking to a doctor.
Can COVID-19 be prevented?
There is not yet a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. But there are things you can do to help slow the spread. These steps are a good idea for everyone, especially in areas where there are a lot of cases of COVID-19.
To help protect yourself and others:
Practice "social distancing." It's most important to avoid contact with people who are sick. But social distancing also means staying away from all people who do not live in your household. It is sometimes called "physical distancing."
Avoiding crowds is an important part of social distancing. But even small gatherings can be risky, so it's best to stay home as much as you can. When you do need to go out, try your best to stay at least 6 feet (about 2 meters) away from other people.
Wear a cloth face mask when you need to go out. Experts in many countries recommend doing this. It is mostly so that if you are infected, even if you don't have any symptoms, you are less likely to spread the infection to other people. It might also help protect you from others who could be infected, although experts are still studying this.
You can use a cloth or homemade mask to cover your mouth and nose. In most cases, experts recommend leaving medical masks for health workers. Cloth masks work best if they have several layers of fabric. When you take your mask off, make sure you do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. And wash your hands after you touch the mask. You can wash the cloth mask with the rest of your laundry.
Wash your hands with soap and water often. This is especially important after being out in public or touching surfaces that many other people also touch, like door handles or railings. The risk of getting infected by touching items like this is not well known, but is probably not very high. Still, it's a good idea to wash your hands often.
Make sure to rub your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, cleaning your wrists, fingernails, and in between your fingers. Then rinse your hands and dry them with a paper towel you can throw away. If you are not near a sink, you can use a hand sanitizing gel to clean your hands. The gels with at least 60 percent alcohol work the best. But it is better to wash with soap and water if you can.
Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, nose, and eyes.
Avoid traveling if you can. Some experts recommend not traveling to or from certain areas where there are a lot of cases of COVID-19. But any form of travel, especially if you spend time in crowded places like airports, increases your risk. If lots of people travel, it also makes it more likely that the virus will spread to more parts of the world.
If you do need to travel, be sure to check whether there are any rules about COVID-19 in the area you are visiting. In the United States, some places require people to "self-quarantine" for 14 days if they are visiting from another state. This means not going out in public or being around other people. These rules are meant to help prevent new cases of COVID-19.
Why is social distancing so important?
Keeping people away from each other is one of the best ways to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. That's because the virus can spread easily through close contact, and it's not always possible to know who is infected.
In many places, schools, day cares, and businesses are closed, or have new rules in place. Many events have been canceled or postponed. But social distancing is not just about avoiding big crowds. The safest thing to do is to avoid any gatherings with people from outside your household, even in small groups. Many people find it helpful to stay in touch with friends and relatives in other ways, like over the phone or online. If you have outdoor space, or can take a walk without getting near other people, it can also help to get fresh air when you are able.
When experts recommend staying home, it's important to take this seriously and follow instructions as best you can. If you do need to be around other people, keep in mind that:
The virus can spread both indoors and outdoors. But being outdoors is probably less risky.
The more people you come into contact with, and the more often you do this, the higher the risk of spreading the virus.
Washing your hands often, staying 6 feet (2 meters) away from people, and wearing a cloth mask will all help lower the risk to you and others.
Keep in mind that even if you do not get very sick from COVID-19, you could still spread it to others who could get very sick. If people stop social distancing too soon, more people will get infected. This has happened in many areas that reopened early, especially in the United States. As a result, COVID-19 has continued to spread.
What should I do if someone in my home has COVID-19?
If someone in your home has COVID-19, there are additional things you can do to protect yourself and others:
Keep the sick person away from others – The sick person should stay in a separate room, and use a different bathroom if possible. They should also eat in their own room.
Experts also recommend that the person stay away from pets in the house until they are better.
Have them wear a mask – The sick person should cover their nose and mouth with a cloth mask when they are in the same room as other people. If they can't wear a mask, you can help protect yourself by covering your face when you are in the room with them.
Wash hands – Wash your hands with soap and water often (see above).
Clean often – Here are some specific things that can help:
Wear disposable gloves when you clean. It's also a good idea to wear gloves when you have to touch the sick person's laundry, dishes, utensils, or trash.
When you do the sick person's laundry, avoid letting dirty clothes or bedding touch your body. Wash your hands and clean the outside of the washer after putting in the laundry.
Regularly clean things that are touched a lot. This includes counters, bedside tables, doorknobs, computers, phones, and bathroom surfaces.
Clean things in your home with soap and water, but also use disinfectants on appropriate surfaces. Some cleaning products work well to kill bacteria, but not viruses, so it's important to check labels. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of products here: www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2.
What if I feel fine but think I was exposed?
If you think you were in close contact with someone with COVID-19, but you don't have any symptoms, you should self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days. This means staying home as much as possible, and staying at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from other people in your home. Self-quarantine is slightly different from self-isolation, which is when a person who is infected stays in a completely separate room from others.
You should also monitor yourself for any symptoms. If you do start to have symptoms, call your doctor or nurse right away.
What if I am pregnant?
More information about COVID-19 and pregnancy is available separately. (See "Patient education: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and pregnancy (The Basics)".)
If you are pregnant and you have questions about COVID-19, talk to your doctor, nurse, or midwife. They can help.
What can I do to cope with stress and anxiety?
It's normal to feel anxious or worried about COVID-19. It's also normal to feel stressed or lonely when you can't do your normal activities or see friends and relatives. You can take care of yourself by trying to:
Take breaks from the news
Get regular exercise and eat healthy foods
Find activities that you enjoy and can do at home
Stay in touch with your friends and family members
It might also help to remember that by doing things like staying home, wearing a mask, and avoiding large groups, you are helping to protect other people in your community.
Keep in mind that most people do not get severely ill from COVID-19. It helps to be prepared, and it's important to do what you can to lower your risk and help slow the spread of the virus. But try not to panic.
Where can I go to learn more?
As we learn more about this virus, expert recommendations will continue to change. Check with your doctor or public health official to get the most updated information about how to protect yourself.
For information about COVID-19 in your area, you can call your local public health office. In the United States, this usually means your city or town's Board of Health. Many states also have a "hotline" phone number you can call.
You can find more information about COVID-19 at the following websites:
United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov/COVID19
World Health Organization (WHO): www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
A list of other resources from expert groups around the world is also available. (See "Society guideline links: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Resources for patients".)