Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new virus called the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) caused a disease outbreak in China. The disease is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
There isn't much known about this new virus yet. Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are monitoring the situation and posting updates on their websites. These groups have also issued recommendations for preventing and treating the illness.
Signs and symptoms of infection with the new coronavirus may appear two to 14 days after exposure and can include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
The severity of the new coronavirus symptoms can range from very mild to severe, even death. Although understanding of this disease continues to grow, most people with severe illness have been of an older age or had other significant existing medical conditions. This is similar to what is seen in people who have severe infections with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza.
When to see a doctor
Contact your doctor right away if you have symptoms of infection with the new coronavirus and you've possibly been exposed to the virus. Tell your doctor if you've recently traveled internationally. Call your doctor ahead to tell him or her about your symptoms and recent travels and possible exposure before you go to your appointment.
It's unclear exactly how contagious the new coronavirus is or how it spreads. It appears to be spreading from person to person among those in close contact. It may be spread by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.
It's not known if a person can catch the virus by touching a surface that an infected person has touched, and then putting his or her hand to the mouth.
Risk factors for infection with the new coronavirus appear to include:
- Recent travel from or residence in China
- Close contact with someone who has the new coronavirus — such as when a family member or health care worker takes care of an infected person
People who are older or who have other existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, may be at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with the new coronavirus. But there is still much unknown about the virus, and the CDC and WHO continue to investigate.
Although there is no vaccine available to prevent infection with the new coronavirus, you can take steps to reduce your risk of infection. WHO and CDC recommend following the standard precautions for avoiding respiratory viruses:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands aren't clean.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.
- Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding and other household items if you're sick.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you often touch.
- Stay home from work, school and public areas if you're sick.
WHO also recommends that you:
- Contact your doctor if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and tell him or her about any recent travels.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat or animal organs.
- Avoid contact with live animals and surfaces they may have touched if you're visiting live markets in areas that have recently had new coronavirus cases.
If you're planning to travel internationally, first check travel advisories. You may also want to talk with your doctor if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.
Feb. 22, 2020