What is COVID-19 and how can I protect myself?

Answer From Daniel C. DeSimone, M.D.

COVID-19 is the shortened name of coronavirus disease 2019. It is a pandemic illness caused by a coronavirus. The virus that causes COVID-19 is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, shortened to SARS-CoV-2 and it began spreading in 2019. The COVID-19 virus spreads most commonly through the air between people in close contact.

The most effective way to protect yourself and others from getting COVID-19 is to follow the recommendations for getting a CDC vaccine.

How does the coronavirus spread?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses. For example, they can cause the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome, shortened to SARS, as well as COVID-19.

The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person. It can spread from someone who is infected but has no symptoms. When people with COVID-19 cough, sneeze, breathe, sing or talk, they send out virus-infected particles from the respiratory system. People who breathe in the particles or have them land on their hands, nose or mouth can catch the COVID-19 virus.

In areas with low air flow, these particles may collect in the air for minutes to hours.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Typical COVID-19 symptoms often show up 2 to 14 days after contact with the virus. They include the loss of taste and smell and a hard time breathing or catching your breath. People also generally have cold-like symptoms and may have upset stomach, vomiting or loose stools, called diarrhea.

People may only have a few symptoms or none. Other people may have serious symptoms that must be treated in the hospital.

Get emergency help right away for any of the following symptoms:

  • Can't catch your breath or have problems breathing.
  • Skin, lips or nail beds that are pale, gray or blue, depending on skin color.
  • New confusion.
  • Trouble staying awake or waking up.
  • Chest pain or pressure that is constant.

This list doesn't include every emergency symptom. If you or a person you're caring for has symptoms that worry you, get help.

Can COVID-19 be prevented?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a COVID-19 vaccine for everyone age 6 months and older. The COVID-19 vaccine can lower the risk of death or serious illness caused by COVID-19. It lowers your risk and lowers the risk that you may spread it to people around you.

What can I do to avoid becoming ill?

The most effective way to avoid getting COVID-19 is to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Other ways to avoid COVID-19 are to:

  • Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick or has symptoms.
  • Wash your hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are often touched, such as doorknobs.
  • Try to spread out in crowded public areas, especially in places with poor airflow.

Should I wear a mask?

In general, masks can slow the spread of viruses that cause respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Masks help the most in places with low air flow and where you are in close contact with other people.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask in indoor public spaces if you're in an area with a high number of people with COVID-19 in the hospital. They suggest wearing the most protective mask possible that you'll wear regularly, that fits well and is comfortable. Also, during travel, masks can help if the places you are traveling to or through have a high level of illness.

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

Contact a healthcare professional if you test positive for COVID-19. If you have symptoms and need a test, or you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19, a healthcare professional can help. People who are at high risk of serious illness may get medicine to block the COVID-19 virus from spreading in the body. Or your healthcare team may plan regular checks to monitor your health.

In the United States, COVID-19 tests are available at stores and pharmacies or can be ordered online. Free tests can be mailed to U.S. addresses. COVID-19 tests also are available from healthcare professionals, some pharmacies and clinics, or at community testing sites.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also known as the FDA, approves or authorizes the tests. On the FDA website, you can find a list of the tests that are validated and their expiration dates. You also can check with your healthcare professional before buying a test if you have any concerns.


Daniel C. DeSimone, M.D.

Feb. 20, 2024 See more Expert Answers

See also

  1. Antibiotics: Are you misusing them?
  2. COVID-19 and vitamin D
  3. Convalescent plasma therapy
  4. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  5. Cough
  6. Herd immunity and respiratory illness
  7. COVID-19 and pets
  8. COVID-19 and your mental health
  9. COVID-19 antibody testing
  10. COVID-19, cold, allergies and the flu
  11. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  12. COVID-19 tests
  13. COVID-19 drugs: Are there any that work?
  14. COVID-19 in babies and children
  15. Coronavirus infection by race
  16. COVID-19 travel advice
  17. COVID-19 vaccine: Should I reschedule my mammogram?
  18. COVID-19 vaccines for kids: What you need to know
  19. COVID-19 vaccines
  20. COVID-19 variant
  21. COVID-19 vs. flu: Similarities and differences
  22. COVID-19: Who's at higher risk of serious symptoms?
  23. Debunking coronavirus myths
  24. Diarrhea
  25. Different COVID-19 vaccines
  26. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  27. Fever
  28. Fever: First aid
  29. Fever treatment: Quick guide to treating a fever
  30. Fight coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission at home
  31. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  32. How do COVID-19 antibody tests differ from diagnostic tests?
  33. How to measure your respiratory rate
  34. How to take your pulse
  35. How to take your temperature
  36. How well do face masks protect against COVID-19?
  37. Is hydroxychloroquine a treatment for COVID-19?
  38. Loss of smell
  39. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  40. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  41. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)
  42. Nausea and vomiting
  43. Pregnancy and COVID-19
  44. Red eye
  45. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  46. Safety tips for attending school during COVID-19
  47. Sex and COVID-19
  48. Shortness of breath
  49. Thermometers: Understand the options
  50. Treating COVID-19 at home
  51. Unusual symptoms of coronavirus
  52. Vaccine guidance from Mayo Clinic
  53. Watery eyes