What is COVID-19?
Coronavirus disease 2019, or "COVID-19," is an infection caused by a specific virus called SARS-CoV-2. It first appeared in late 2019 in the city of Wuhan, China. People with COVID-19 can have fever, cough, and trouble breathing. Problems with breathing happen when the infection affects the lungs and causes pneumonia.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that get their name for spikes on their surface, resembling a crown (or “corona”, in Latin). Coronaviruses can cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold, and occasionally, coronaviruses are associated with more severe illnesses. We have had a few coronaviruses move across the globe, including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), first recognized in 2003, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012-14, and now COVID-19.
Viruses attack cells by attaching to receptors on the outside of the cells. Some individuals may have more of the type of receptor that the virus latches onto to get into the cell than other individuals. Some people might not even have any of the receptors that the virus targets which could make them immune to attack by that particular virus. This genetic variability in people may explain why some people who are seemingly healthy are at greater risk and get sick.
Underlying factors such as the presence of lung disease where lung tissue is already damaged such as emphysema can increase the likelihood of both getting the infection and of having it be more severe. In China most of the serious cases and deaths have reportedly been in men over the age of 65. A friend from China told me he believes this is likely because around 50% of men in China smoke while only about 2% of women smoke. For many infections like the influenza virus the very young and the very old are often at the most risk. This is because their immune systems do not work as well. For older individuals the risk of severe complications is also increased if there are other medical problems such as heart or kidney disease.
How is COVID-19 spread?
COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person, similar to the flu. This usually happens when a sick person coughs or sneezes near other people. Doctors also think it might be possible to get sick if you touch a surface that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
COVID-19 began in China. But it has spread quickly, and there are cases in many other countries, too, including the United States. Most of these happened when people got the infection and then traveled to another country. But in some cases, the virus then spreads to other people. Because of this, there are now smaller outbreaks in several different countries.
From what experts know so far, COVID-19 seems to spread most easily when people are showing symptoms. It is possible to spread it without having symptoms, too, but experts don't know how often this happens.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Symptoms usually start a few days after a person is infected with the virus. But in some people it can take even longer for symptoms to appear.
Symptoms can include:
Most people have mild symptoms. Some people have no symptoms at all. But in other people, COVID-19 can lead to serious problems like pneumonia, not getting enough oxygen, or even death. This is more common in people who are older or have other health problems. While children can get COVID-19, they seem less likely to have severe symptoms.
Should I see a doctor or nurse?
If you have a fever, cough, or trouble breathing and might have been exposed to COVID-19, call your doctor or nurse. You might have been exposed if any of the following happened within the last 14 days:
●You had close contact with a person who has the virus – This generally means being within about 6 feet of the person.
●You lived in, or traveled to, an area where lots of people have the virus – The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has information about which areas are affected. This can be found on their website: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.
●You went to an event or location where there were known cases of COVID-19 – For example, if multiple people got sick after a specific gathering or in your workplace, you might have been exposed.
If your symptoms are not severe, it is best to call your doctor, nurse, or clinic before you go in. They can tell you what to do and whether you need to be seen in person. If you do need to go to the clinic or hospital, you will need to put on a face mask. The staff might also have you wait some place away from other people.
If you are severely ill and need to go to the clinic or hospital right away, you should still call ahead. This way the staff can care for you while taking steps to protect others.
Will I need tests?
If you are suspected of having COVID-19, they will take samples of fluid from inside your nose and mouth and send them to a lab for testing. They might also test a sample of mucus that you cough up, as well as your urine and stool. These tests can show if you have COVID-19 or another infection. The doctor might also order a chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan to check your lungs.
How is COVID-19 treated?
Most people with COVID-19 have only mild illness and can rest at home until they get better. People with mild symptoms seem to get better after about 2 weeks, but it's not the same for everyone. If you have COVID-19, it's important to stay home from school or work until your doctor or nurse tells you it's safe to go back.
If you have more severe illness, you might need to stay in the hospital, possibly in the intensive care unit (also called the "ICU"). While you are there, you will most likely be in a special "isolation" room. Only medical staff will be allowed in the room, and they will have to wear special gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection. There is no specific treatment for COVID-19, but the doctors and nurses in the hospital can monitor and support your breathing and other body functions and make you as comfortable as possible.
You might need extra oxygen to help you breathe easily. If you are having a very hard time breathing, you might need to be put on a ventilator. This is a machine to help you breathe.