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What you should know about COVID-19

This article will be updated regularly based on the most recent medical knowledge.

Since the start of 2020, a new outbreak called COVID-19 has spread around the world. You might also hear it called the coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2.

Most COVID-19 cases were first reported in China. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on 12 March 2020.[1] The outbreak is affecting the whole world. More than 200 countries have reported COVID-19 infections. Many countries experiencing widespread infection are responding with public health guidelines to fight the spread of COVID-19.

It’s a stressful time for everybody, but keeping yourself informed can help you protect yourself and others during the pandemic. Let’s take a look at what you should know. I’ll also answer some of your most frequently asked questions.

Risk

How likely is it that I’ll catch COVID-19?

COVID-19 has reached almost every country in the world. But if you aren’t in an area where COVID-19 is spreading locally, your chances of getting it are reasonably low. If your area has a high number of cases, take the risk seriously. Wherever you are, follow your local public health authority’s guidelines. The situation is changing rapidly, so it’s important to keep yourself informed.

Why do some people get more serious symptoms than others?

While people of all ages can be infected with COVID-19, 4 out of 5 people have a mild to moderate illness and recover. People over 60 years old with pre-existing medical conditions are more likely to become seriously unwell. These conditions can include high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Children seem to be less affected.

What are the typical COVID-19 symptoms?

Typical symptoms are:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue.

But COVID-19 patients also show less typical symptoms, such as:

  • headache
  • generalized muscle aches and pains
  • sore throat
  • diarrhea
  • reduced or lost sense of smell and taste
  • runny nose
  • red or sore eyes.

Not every infected person develops symptoms.

What should I do if I think I’m infected?

Guidelines differ between countries. Even cities in the same country can have different guidelines. It’s important to check with your local public health authority to get advice for your area.

Here are 5 tips that will be consistent with the guidelines for most areas.

  1. Before you go to a doctor’s office or the emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your contacts and symptoms, then follow their advice.
  2. Avoid contact with others and don’t travel.
  3. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve, not your hands, when you cough or sneeze.
  4. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  5. Wear a face mask when you’re around others.

Feeling worried? Check potential COVID-19 symptoms with our free screener. Keep in mind that you’ll need further testing for a diagnosis.

Could I die from COVID-19?

It is possible to die from COVID-19 complications. But only a small percentage of people, currently 1% to 4%, who are infected become so unwell that they die. This means the majority of infected people recover. Mortality is higher for people over 60 years and for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Image shows an illustration of how the coronavirus appears under the microscope.

Transmission

How is COVID-19 transmitted?

COVID-19 transmission is similar to other respiratory viruses. Respiratory viruses are related to breathing. The virus mainly spreads through small droplets, often when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Usually, these droplets only reach people or surfaces close to the infected person.

Usually, droplets can spread 1 to 2 meters but not further than that. The virus doesn’t seem to be passed through the fecal-oral route. That means hand to mouth following direct contact with poo or vomit. There is some evidence that microparticles can stay in the air after singing or loud speaking and cause infection.

Is the virus only spread by sick people?

People who have no symptoms can also spread COVID-19. Studies suggest people who don’t have symptoms yet, or who don’t get symptoms at all, could be responsible for 40% to 60% of infections. It seems that people are most infectious the day before they get symptoms.

What is the incubation period?

The incubation period is the time between the infection and the first symptoms. The average incubation period for COVID-19 is around 5 to 6 days but can range from 1 to 14 days.

For how long are people with COVID-19 infectious?

The virus can be detected up to several weeks in samples from infected people. But that doesn’t mean the virus is active and infectious. One small study detected the active virus in throat swabs up to 4 days after symptom onset, and up to 8 days in sputum samples. Sputum means saliva and mucus.

The active virus wasn’t detected in blood, poo, or pee. This study suggests that people are infectious for up to 8 days, with reduced infectiousness after 4 days. These results need to be confirmed in a more extensive study.

Can I get COVID-19 more than once?

We have no long-term experiences with COVID-19 yet. Studies have shown that infected people develop antibodies, which protect them from another infection. How long this immunity lasts remains to be seen.

Prevention

How can I avoid a COVID-19 infection?

Avoiding exposure to the virus is the best way to prevent infection. Here are the standard measures to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Remain at least 2 meters away from anyone who has a fever and cough.
  • Stay home if you have symptoms, even mild ones.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the bin.
  • Disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Image shows tips to limit COVID-19 infection in 6 small drawings

Should I wear a mask?

Masks are effective. They help infected people avoid spreading the virus more than they protect people who aren’t infected. Some countries have asked people to wear masks in public to decrease infection. A World Health Organization analysis has shown that masks can reduce transmission by nearly 80%.

Treatment

Is there a vaccine or drug for COVID-19?

Vaccine production is a complicated and time-consuming process that usually takes years. Sometimes, like with new influenza viruses, pharmaceutical companies can accelerate this process. COVID-19 is a very high priority. The first vaccines are already being licensed.

Some studies are testing whether pre-existing drugs for other diseases could become a COVID-19 vaccine. These other diseases include HIV, malaria, and ebola. Until now, only a few drug trials have shown they could help people infected with COVID-19.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

A healthcare professional can take a swab from your upper respiratory tract. That means from the back of your throat through your nose or mouth. The swab is then analyzed in a lab to detect genes from the virus.

Rapid tests are more common now. These tests also use respiratory swabs but can be analyzed where the person is tested. There are also antibody tests that can identify infection and possible immunity.

Perspective

Can I go to a doctor for non-COVID-19 related complaints?

Yes. Despite the spread of COVID-19, many other diseases still need medical attention. If you’re worried about your symptoms, do not hesitate to contact your healthcare professional for advice. There is evidence that people are experiencing more serious health outcomes because they delayed seeking care during the pandemic.

When will the pandemic be over?

It’s still hard to say. At the moment, there’s little indication it will stop soon. Vaccination programs may soon give us a better forecast for when this will be over.

Graph shows how the number of cases can be decreased with public health intervention

Keep reading. Check potential COVID-19 symptoms with our free screener. Watch Dr. Gilsdorf’s COVID-19 videos on Instagram. Learn more about the virus in our Medical Library.


  1. World Health Orginization. “WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 11 March 2020”. 11 March 2020.


Writer:

Dr. Andreas Gilsdorf

Andreas is Ada's Director of Epidemiology and Public Health.