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A new type of coronavirus, first reported in China in late 2019, has led to a global pandemic.
The virus is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The World Health Organization named the disease the virus causes COVID-19, and it is responsible for tens of millions of cases and millions of deaths worldwide.
What is the virus, and how is it causing widespread illness and death?
Understanding Coronavirus: What Is SARS-CoV-2?
Coronavirus refers to a large group of viruses that can cause illnesses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
A “novel coronavirus” – such as SARS-CoV-2 – is one that has not previously been identified in humans. The outbreak began in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, in late 2019.
COVID-19, the disease SARS-CoV-2 causes, is a respiratory illness that can cause many different symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Some people may not have symptoms at all but can still spread the disease.
It also can lead to more serious complications, like pneumonia, and can be deadly.
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What Causes Coronavirus to Spread?
Coronaviruses are common in animals, including bats, camels, cattle, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In rare cases, those viruses can spread to humans. The original source of SARS-CoV-2 is unknown.
Once infected, people can spread the virus. This usually occurs when an infected person is in close contact with an uninfected person. That can happen in houses, offices, public transportation, and more. The CDC defines close contact as within 6 feet.
The most common way COVID-19 spreads is through respiratory droplets. When someone infected with the coronavirus coughs, sneezes, breathes, talks, or sings, it releases respiratory droplets. Those droplets then can be inhaled through the mouth or nose of someone nearby, infecting them.
SARS-CoV-2 also can spread if people touch an infected surface or object and later touch their mouth, nose, or eyes. This is a less common form of infection.
According to the CDC, people are most contagious when they are showing symptoms. However, it also is possible for people who aren’t showing symptoms to spread the disease.
Who Is at Risk of Infection with Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2?
People who live, work, or travel in the regions where COVID-19 is spreading widely are at risk of catching the disease themselves.
It spreads mostly when an uninfected person comes into close contact (within 6 feet) of an infected person.
People of older age and with medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, and HIV, are at greater risk of complications if exposed to the virus.
The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory illnesses like the cold and flu. The most common include:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Other symptoms are similar to viruses like the common cold and influenza (flu).
According to the CDC, symptoms can appear anywhere from 2-14 days after exposure. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, even life-threatening. Some people may have no symptoms at all.
Because the disease’s symptoms mirror other illnesses, tests are necessary to make a diagnosis. Talk to your doctor about getting tested if you are showing symptoms, or if you have been in close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
What Treatment Is Available for COVID-19?
The FDA has approved one drug, remdesivir, to treat severe cases of COVID-19. Other treatments have received EUA and can be used in severe cases.
People who are asymptomatic or who have minor symptoms should isolate at home and treat symptoms with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. They should seek emergency care for severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing.
Can SARS-CoV-2 Be Prevented?
The best way to prevent SARS-CoV-2 is by avoiding exposure to the virus and getting vaccinated when immunizations are available. Here are other precautionary methods:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Practice social distancing, avoiding large gatherings or crowds of people.
- Wear a facemask when around people who are not from your household, especially in public places.
- Wash your hands, especially before touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds. Washing your hands is especially important before eating, after using the bathroom, and after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.
- If you’re sick, stay home.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue, and throw the used tissue away.
- Clean and disinfect regularly used objects and surfaces.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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About Infectious Diseases
If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.