Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that affects the airways and lungs. It was first seen in humans in 2019. COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, which is a type of coronavirus.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can infect humans and animals. Some cause mild respiratory infections, such as the common cold, while others cause more severe illnesses, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Symptoms of coronavirus
The symptoms of COVID-19 are usually mild and tend to develop slowly. They generally appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, and include:
- dry cough
- aches and pains
- blocked or runny nose
- sore throat
- a change in your sense of smell or taste
In some cases, the condition doesn’t cause any symptoms.
It is thought that the majority of people (4 in 5) who catch the virus get better without special treatment. However, a small number (around 1 in 6) can develop pneumonia and difficulty breathing, which can be life-threatening.
Your risk of developing a serious illness increases if you are elderly or have an existing medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes.
When to worry about coronavirus
Seek medical help if you have:
- difficulty breathing
- a fever
- a new, continuous cough
Do not go to your doctor’s office or the emergency room, instead call your country's dedicated coronavirus helpline. If it's an emergency, phone for an ambulance and tell them your symptoms so that measures can be taken to reduce the risk of infecting others.
Stay indoors and avoid close contact with other people.
How the coronavirus is spread
At present, there is no vaccine to reduce your risk of catching COVID-19. Because the infection is most likely spread through cough droplets, you can reduce your risk of infection by:
- covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when coughing or sneezing
- washing your hands regularly with warm water and soap - wash for at least 20 seconds
- keeping a distance of at least 1 metre from other people
- throwing used tissues away immediately
- using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available
- avoiding close contact with people who are unwell
- not touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean
It is currency unclear if wearing a cloth face covering protects you from catching the virus, but it may reduce your risk of spreading the infection to others if you have it.
General guidance suggests there is no need to self-isolate (stay at home) unless you have or might have COVID-19.
You should self-isolate for up to 14 days if:
- you or someone you live with have COVID-19 symptoms
- you or someone you live with has had a positive COVID-19 test
- someone you have been in close contact with has COVID-19 symptoms or has tested positive for the condition
However, always check local guidelines for information specific to your city or country. During an outbreak, different regions may use different rules to limit the spread of infection.
How to get tested for COVID-19
Guidelines for getting tested vary from country to country, but if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone with the illness, you may be able to get a test to see if you have the virus. During this test, the inside of your nose and throat will usually be swabbed with a long cotton bud.
There is also another test to check if you've had COVID-19. This involves having a blood test known as an antibody test.
How to treat the coronavirus
At present, there is no specific medication to prevent or treat COVID-19. The current treatment for anyone with the infection includes supportive care to treat symptoms.
As COVID-19 is caused by a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics, which work against bacteria, not viruses.
To find out more about COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus Hub.
Written on 24 February 2020
Reviewed on 27 July 2020
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