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Medical Library Diseases and Conditions Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Overview

Coronavirus

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that originated in China.

The virus is now known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Public health groups, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO, are monitoring the pandemic and posting updates on their websites. These groups have also issued recommendations for preventing and treating the illness.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may appear two to 14 days after exposure. This time after exposure and before having symptoms is called the incubation period. Common signs and symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Tiredness

Other symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Headache
  • Chest pain

This list is not all inclusive. Other less common symptoms have been reported, such as rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Children have similar symptoms to adults and generally have mild illness.

The severity of COVID-19 symptoms can range from very mild to severe. Some people may have only a few symptoms, and some people may have no symptoms at all. People who are older or who have existing chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, severe obesity, chronic kidney or liver disease, or who have compromised immune systems may be at higher risk of serious illness. This is similar to what is seen with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza.

Some people may experience worsened symptoms, such as worsened shortness of breath and pneumonia, about a week after symptoms start.

When to see a doctor

If you have COVID-19 symptoms or you've been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, contact your doctor or clinic right away for medical advice. Tell your health care team about your symptoms and possible exposure before you go to your appointment.

If you have emergency COVID-19 signs and symptoms, seek care immediately. Emergency signs and symptoms can include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent chest pain or pressure
  • Inability to stay awake
  • New confusion
  • Blue lips or face

If you have signs or symptoms of COVID-19, contact your doctor or clinic for guidance. Let your doctor know if you have other chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease or lung disease. During the pandemic, it's important to make sure health care is available for those in greatest need.

Causes

Infection with the new coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2) causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The virus appears to spread easily among people, and more continues to be discovered over time about how it spreads. Data has shown that it spreads from person to person among those in close contact (within about 6 feet, or 2 meters). The virus spreads by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs, sneezes or talks. These droplets can be inhaled or land in the mouth or nose of a person nearby.

It can also spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes, although this isn't considered to be a main way it spreads.

Risk factors

Risk factors for COVID-19 appear to include:

  • Recent travel from or residence in an area with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 as determined by CDC or WHO
  • Close contact (within 6 feet, or 2 meters) with someone who has COVID-19 for more than 5 minutes or being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person

Complications

Although most people with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms, the disease can cause severe medical complications and lead to death in some people. Older adults or people with existing chronic medical conditions are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

Complications can include:

  • Pneumonia and trouble breathing
  • Organ failure in several organs
  • Heart problems
  • A severe lung condition that causes a low amount of oxygen to go through your bloodstream to your organs (acute respiratory distress syndrome)
  • Blood clots
  • Acute kidney injury
  • Additional viral and bacterial infections

Prevention

Although there is no vaccine available to prevent COVID-19, you can take steps to reduce your risk of infection. WHO and CDC recommend following these precautions for avoiding COVID-19:

  • Avoid large events and mass gatherings.
  • Avoid close contact (within about 6 feet, or 2 meters) with anyone who is sick or has symptoms.
  • Stay home as much as possible and keep distance between yourself and others (within about 6 feet, or 2 meters), especially if you have a higher risk of serious illness. Keep in mind some people may have COVID-19 and spread it to others, even if they don't have symptoms or don't know they have COVID-19.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover your face with a cloth face mask in public spaces, such as the grocery store, where it's difficult to avoid close contact with others, especially if you're in an area with ongoing community spread. Only use nonmedical cloth masks — surgical masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for health care providers.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the used tissue. Wash your hands right away.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, towels, bedding and other household items if you're sick.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, electronics and counters, daily.
  • Stay home from work, school and public areas if you're sick, unless you're going to get medical care. Avoid public transportation, taxis and ride-sharing if you're sick.

If you have a chronic medical condition and may have a higher risk of serious illness, check with your doctor about other ways to protect yourself.

Travel

If you're planning to travel, first check the CDC and WHO websites for updates and advice. Also look for any health advisories that may be in place where you plan to travel. You may also want to talk with your doctor if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.

Diagnosis

If you develop symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and you've been exposed to the virus, contact your doctor. Tell him or her if you've traveled to any areas with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 according to CDC and WHO. Also let your doctor know if you've had close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Factors used to decide whether to test you for COVID-19 may differ depending on where you live. Depending on your location, you may need to be screened by your clinic to determine if testing is appropriate and available.

In the U.S., your doctor will determine whether to conduct tests for COVID-19 based on your signs and symptoms, as well as whether you have had close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or traveled to or lived in any areas with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 in the past 14 days. Your doctor may also consider testing if you're at higher risk of serious illness.

To test for COVID-19, a health care provider uses a long swab to take a sample from the nose or throat. The samples are then sent to a lab for testing. If you're coughing up saliva (sputum), that may be sent for testing. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized at-home tests for COVID-19. These are available only with a doctor's prescription.

Treatment

Currently, no medication is recommended to treat COVID-19, and no cure is available. Antibiotics aren't effective against viral infections such as COVID-19. Researchers are testing a variety of possible treatments.

The FDA granted permission for some medications approved for other diseases to be used to treat severe COVID-19 when no other options are available. Two malaria drugs — hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — and an antiviral drug, remdesivir, have been approved for this use.

Treatment is directed at relieving symptoms and may include:

  • Pain relievers (ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
  • Cough syrup or medication
  • Rest
  • Fluid intake

There is no evidence that ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) need to be avoided.

If you have mild symptoms, your doctor may recommend that you recover at home. He or she may give you special instructions to monitor your symptoms and to avoid spreading the illness to others. You'll likely be asked to isolate yourself as much as possible from family and pets while you're sick, wear a mask when you're around people and pets, and use a separate bedroom and bathroom.

Your doctor will likely recommend that you stay in home isolation for a period of time except to get medical care. Your doctor will likely follow up with you regularly. Follow guidelines from your doctor and local health department about when you can end home isolation.

If you're very ill, you may need to be treated in the hospital.

Coping and support

It's common to feel fearful and anxious during the COVID-19 pandemic. You're probably worried that you or those you love will get sick. You may be concerned about taking care of yourself or others who are ill.

During this time, remember to take care of yourself and manage your stress.

  • Eat healthy meals.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Get physical activity as you're able to, such as using exercise or yoga videos. If you're healthy, go outside for a walk.
  • Try relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, stretching and meditation.
  • Avoid watching or reading too much news or spending too much time on social media.
  • Connect with friends and family, such as with phone or video calls.
  • Do activities you enjoy, such as reading a book or watching a funny movie.

If you're ill with COVID-19, it's especially important to:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink fluids.
  • Let your doctor know right away if your symptoms worsen.

Having COVID-19 or caring for someone with the disease can cause stress and anxiety. If stress is affecting your daily life after several days, contact your doctor. He or she may suggest that you talk to a mental health professional.

Preparing for an appointment

During a pandemic, it's not always possible for everyone who is ill to see a doctor. You may start by seeing your primary care doctor or other health care provider. Or you may be referred immediately to a doctor trained in treating infectious diseases. If you think you have COVID-19, tell your doctor or clinic before going in. The doctor and medical team can then:

  • Contact infection prevention and control and public health officials
  • Prepare to move you to a room quickly
  • Have a mask ready for you

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. Make a list of:

  • Your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
  • Your recent travels, including any international travels
  • Key personal information, including major stresses, recent life changes and family medical history
  • All medications, vitamins or other supplements you take, including the doses
  • Questions to ask your doctor

Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given. Avoid bringing more than one or two people. Check before you go to the appointment, as your hospital or clinic may have visitor restrictions.

Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • How likely is it that the new coronavirus is causing my symptoms?
  • What are other possible causes for my symptoms?
  • What tests do I need?
  • What course of action do you recommend?
  • Are there restrictions I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Where have you traveled recently?
  • Who have you been in close contact with?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
Last Updated: May 22nd, 2020