I've heard about the MERS-CoV infection. What is it, and is there anything I need to do to protect myself?

Answer From James M. Steckelberg, M.D.

MERS-CoV refers to a viral respiratory illness — Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — that's caused by a coronavirus (CoV), the same family of viruses that can cause the common cold.

MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia. Since then, it's been reported in other countries in the Middle East and in Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States. Most cases outside of the Middle East have been reported by people who recently traveled there.

MERS-CoV ranges from mild to severe. Some people experience no symptoms or symptoms similar to those of a mild upper respiratory infection.

But many people have fever and cough that progress to pneumonia. Sometimes people experience digestive system signs and symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The kidneys and the lining around the heart also can be affected.

MERS-CoV can lead to respiratory or kidney failure and is sometimes fatal. You're most at risk of serious illness if you're an older adult or if you have a weakened immune system or a chronic disease, such as diabetes or lung disease.

Treatment for MERS-CoV focuses on relieving symptoms and includes rest, fluids, pain relievers and, in severe cases, oxygen therapy.

What can you do?

Unlike influenza or the common cold, MERS-CoV doesn't seem to spread readily among people in communities. Instead, MERS-CoV has spread mostly among people who are in close contact, such as people living with or providing direct care for an infected person.

There's currently no vaccine to prevent MERS-CoV. However, as with any virus, you can reduce your risk of infection by using good health and hygiene practices:

  • Vigorously wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues in the trash immediately, and then wash your hands carefully.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs.
  • Avoid touching your face, mouth and nose with unwashed hands.
  • Don't share cups, utensils or other items with sick people.

Is it OK to travel?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are closely monitoring the virus. They're currently not recommending changing your plans if you're traveling to the Middle East or other places where the virus has been reported.

If you've traveled to the Arabian Peninsula or a neighboring country and you develop a fever and symptoms of MERS-CoV within 14 days of returning, see your doctor and discuss your recent travel.

Oct. 25, 2018 See more Expert Answers