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Health Information Library Frequently Asked Questions Coronavirus: What is it and how can I protect myself?

Coronavirus: What is it and how can I protect myself?

Answer Section

A new virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that began in China in 2019. The disease is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 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 the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

How does the coronavirus spread?

Data has shown that the COVID-19 virus mainly 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 infected with the virus coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings or talks. These droplets can be inhaled or land in the mouth, nose or eyes of a person nearby.

Sometimes the COVID-19 virus can spread when a person is exposed to small droplets or aerosols that stay in the air for several minutes or hours — called airborne transmission.

The virus can also spread if you touch a surface with the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes. But the risk is low.

The COVID-19 virus can spread from someone who is infected but has no symptoms. This is called asymptomatic transmission. The COVID-19 virus can also spread from someone who is infected but hasn't developed symptoms yet. This is called presymptomatic transmission.

It's possible to get COVID-19 twice or more, but this is uncommon.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 symptoms can be very mild to severe. Some people have no symptoms. The most common signs and symptoms are fever, cough, tiredness, and loss of taste or smell.

Other signs and symptoms may include shortness of breath, muscle aches, chills, sore throat, headache, chest pain, diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. This list is not complete. Other less common symptoms have also been reported. Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure.

Can COVID-19 be prevented?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given emergency use authorization to some COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. The FDA has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, now called Comirnaty, to prevent COVID-19 in people age 16 and older. A vaccine might prevent you from getting COVID-19 or prevent you from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 if you get the COVID-19 virus.

What can I do to avoid becoming ill?

If you haven't gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, you can reduce your risk of infection from the COVID-19 virus and reduce the risk of spreading it to others. The CDC and WHO recommend following these precautions:

  • Keep at least 6 feet (2 meters) of distance between yourself and people outside your household.
  • Avoid crowds and indoor places that have poor airflow (ventilation).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you’re not able to wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Wear a mask in public places, especially when social distancing is difficult.
  • 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.
  • Clean and disinfect often-touched surfaces daily.

If you have a chronic medical condition, you may have a higher risk of serious illness. Check with your health care provider about other ways to protect yourself.

Should I wear a mask?

The CDC and WHO recommend that people who haven’t been vaccinated wear cloth face masks in public when social distancing is difficult. People who haven't been vaccinated should continue to wear face masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors when there is a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as at a crowded event or large gathering. This advice is based on evidence that people with COVID-19 can spread the COVID-19 virus before they realize they have it.

Using masks in public may help reduce the spread from people who don't have symptoms. Non-medical cloth masks are recommended for the public. Surgical masks may be used if available. In some locations, surgical masks and N95 masks may be in short supply and should be reserved for health care providers.

According to the CDC, after you're fully vaccinated, it's OK not to wear a mask except where required by a rule or law. However, if you are in an area with a high number of new COVID-19 cases in the last week, the CDC recommends that you wear a mask indoors in public and outdoors in crowded areas or when you are in close contact with unvaccinated people.

If you are fully vaccinated and have a medical condition or take medications that weaken your immune system, you may need to keep wearing a mask. You're considered fully vaccinated two weeks after you get a second dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or two weeks after you get a single dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

In the U.S., everyone needs to wear a mask while on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

Can I travel?

If you're planning to travel, check for travel advisories and use appropriate precautions when in public. You may want to talk with your health care provider if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.

What can I do if I have or may have COVID-19?

If you develop symptoms or you've been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, contact your health care provider for medical advice. Your health care provider will likely recommend that you get tested for COVID-19. If you have emergency COVID-19 symptoms, such as trouble breathing, seek care immediately. If you need to go to a hospital, call ahead so that health care providers can take steps to ensure that others aren't exposed.

Take the following precautions to avoid spreading the virus that causes COVID-19:

  • Stay home from work, school and public areas and stay in isolation, except to get medical care.
  • Avoid public transportation, taxis and ride-hailing services.
  • Wear a cloth face mask around other people or pets.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Isolate yourself as much as possible from other people or pets in your home.
  • Use a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible.
  • Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding and other household items.
  • Clean and disinfect often-touched surfaces daily.
Last Updated: November 5th, 2021