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

Answer From Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

A new virus called the 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.

How does the coronavirus spread?

Data has shown that the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) 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 that stay in the air for several minutes or hours — called airborne transmission. It's not yet known how common it is for the virus to spread this way.

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, but this isn't a main way it spreads.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

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

Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, muscle aches, chills, sore throat, headache, chest pain, and loss of taste or smell. This list is not all inclusive. Other less common symptoms have also been reported. Symptoms may appear two 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 U.S. 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, there are many steps you can take to prevent yourselves from getting the COVID-19 virus and 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 ventilation.
  • 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.
  • 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 surfaces you often touch on a daily basis.

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.

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 where 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 transmit 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 N-95 respirators are in short supply and should be reserved for health care providers.

After you're fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends that it's ok not to wear a mask except where required by a rule or law. If you are fully vaccinated and have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may need to keep wearing a mask. You're considered fully vaccinated 2 weeks after you get a second dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or 2 weeks after you get a single dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

In the U.S., everyone also 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, first check for travel advisories and use appropriate precautions when in public. You also may want to talk with your doctor if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.

What can I do if I am or may be ill with COVID-19?

If you develop symptoms or you've been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, contact your doctor for medical advice. If you need to go to the doctor or hospital, call ahead so health care providers can take steps to ensure that others aren't exposed.

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

  • Stay home from work, school and public areas, except to get medical care.
  • Avoid public transportation, taxis and ride-sharing if possible.
  • Wear a cloth face mask around other people.
  • Isolate yourself as much as possible from others in your home.
  • Use a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible.
  • Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding and other household items.

With

Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

June 30, 2021 See more Expert Answers

See also

  1. After COVID-19 vaccination: Is it OK to visit with loved ones?
  2. Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread through food, water, surfaces and pets?
  3. COVID-19 and vitamin D
  4. Convalescent plasma therapy
  5. Coronavirus safety tips for going out
  6. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  7. Coronavirus grief
  8. Coronavirus vs. flu: Similarities and differences
  9. Cough
  10. Herd immunity and coronavirus
  11. COVID-19 and high blood pressure
  12. COVID-19 and pets
  13. COVID-19 and your mental health
  14. COVID-19 antibody testing
  15. COVID-19, cold, allergies and the flu
  16. COVID-19 and holidays
  17. COVID-19 (coronavirus) drugs: Are there any that work?
  18. COVID-19 (coronavirus) in babies and children
  19. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  20. COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice
  21. COVID-19 tests
  22. How well do face masks protect against coronavirus?
  23. COVID-19 (coronavirus): Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing
  24. COVID-19 vaccine: Should I reschedule my mammogram?
  25. COVID-19 vaccines for kids: What you need to know
  26. COVID-19 vaccines
  27. COVID-19 variant
  28. COVID-19: Who's at higher risk of serious symptoms?
  29. Debunking coronavirus myths
  30. Diarrhea
  31. Different COVID-19 vaccines
  32. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)
  33. Fever
  34. Fever: First aid
  35. Fever treatment: Quick guide to treating a fever
  36. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  37. How do COVID-19 antibody tests differ from diagnostic tests?
  38. How does COVID-19 affect people with diabetes?
  39. How to take your pulse
  40. How to measure your respiratory rate
  41. How to safely go to your doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic
  42. How to take your temperature
  43. How to talk to your kids about COVID-19
  44. Loss of smell
  45. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  46. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  47. Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)
  48. Nausea and vomiting
  49. Pregnancy and COVID-19
  50. Coronavirus infection by race
  51. Red eye
  52. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  53. Safety tips for returning to school during COVID-19
  54. Sex and COVID-19
  55. Shortness of breath
  56. Telemedicine online doctor visits
  57. Teleworking during the coronavirus
  58. Thermometers: Understand the options
  59. Video: Travel safely for medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  60. Treating COVID-19 at home
  61. Unusual symptoms of coronavirus
  62. Watery eyes
  63. Fight coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission at home
  64. Contact tracing and COVID-19: What is it and how does it work?
  65. What's causing my infant's diarrhea?