Your Questions, Answered
As COVID-19 (coronavirus) continues to spread, understanding of the virus that causes this disease continues to evolve. It was first detected in China and quickly spread across the globe to every continent besides Antarctica, triggering a pandemic designation by the World Health Organization. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes has been named COVID-19.
What We Know and What We Don’t
Because this virus is new to scientists, there is still much to be understood about the complete clinical picture.
“COVID-19 has a range of clinical manifestations, from mild to life threatening. But many have recovered despite no approved treatment,” says Infectious Disease Specialist Gary A. Noskin, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The disease is believed to have originally occurred from animal-to-person contact and spreads person-to-person. People are now developing this infection in the community without any known exposure.
“Scientists are working to better understand how best to treat, as well as prevent, this infection,” says Dr. Noskin. Additionally, research seeks to better understand the biology of the pathogen in order to develop a vaccine and therapeutic medications.
“While we are still learning more about the evolution of COVID-19 and its clinical profile, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others,” says Dr. Noskin. Namely, it’s important to stay informed and take the same everyday preventive measures as you would to avoid any type of infection.
1. Symptoms can look similar to the flu.
Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath, and may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. And, because influenza is also a viral respiratory infection, they can look very similar. A diagnosis, taken by swab, is the only way to truly confirm the cause of the infection.
However, data suggests influenza and COVID-19 spread differently. COVID-19 seems to transmit easily, which is why significant efforts at the initial onset of cases were dedicated to isolating those exposed to the virus.
Unlike influenza, no vaccines are available for COVID-19. Scientists are working on development of vaccines and treatment options, and some are already being tested.
2. It’s primarily transmitted through droplets, and thought to be most contagious when an individual is symptomatic.
COVID-19 spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with one another (approximately 6 feet). The virus can be transmitted in droplets that become airborne through a cough or sneeze from someone who is showing symptoms of COVID-19.
However, the window before symptoms occur, known as an incubation period, lasts an average of five days. Experts do not know how the virus is transmitted during the incubation period. But, they believe it is most likely to spread when an individual is showing symptoms.
Experts also do not know how long the virus can live on surfaces, so it’s important to take preventive steps like using proper hand hygiene and avoiding touching your face, mouth and eyes.
3. Certain individuals may be at greater risk for serious illness.
Illness has generally been mild for children and young adults. However, certain populations are more at risk for serious illness. The most vulnerable populations include elderly people and individuals with underlying conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. These populations should take additional preventive measures when possible, such as avoiding non-essential travel and crowded spaces.
4. Protect yourself and your family.
In addition to staying informed, Dr. Noskin encourages everyone to exercise precaution. To help protect yourself and others from the spread of infection:
- Wash your hands. Soap and water are the best option. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching your mouth, face or eyes. Wearing glasses or gloves may help remind you.
- Cover any coughs or sneezes, throwing away used tissues immediately. Plus, avoid sharing personal items like glasses, eating utensils, towels or bedding.
- Routinely clean surfaces. Clean and disinfect high-traffic areas, including doorknobs, handles and sinks.
- Stay home if you’re sick.
5. Know what to do if you’re sick.
If you are feeling sick, monitor your symptoms carefully. Contact your physician for guidance if you have symptoms of COVID-19, which can include a fever, cough or shortness of breath. Please remember:
- Do not go to your physician’s office first, as you could risk infecting others. Instead, call ahead to your physician to discuss appropriate next steps.
- Stay home unless you are seeking medical care.
- Try to restrict your movement to one area of the house, away from others — including animals. Clean and disinfect surfaces.
- If you are exhibiting symptoms and do decide to seek help, wear a face mask if available to avoid infecting others.
If you are having trouble breathing and need emergency care, go to the emergency department or call 911.
Even though there is still much to be understood, much like any viral infection, you can implement simple, everyday measures to help prevent the spread of infection to yourself or others.
COVID-19 can look different in every patient. “Research may better provide clarity as to whether that is due to the pathogen or the level of exposure,” says Dr. Noskin.
Consult the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most current recommendations.