What is the 2019 coronavirus?
In early 2020, a new virus began generating headlines all over the world because of the unprecedented speed of its transmission.
Its origins have been traced to a food market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. From there, it’s reached countries as distant as the United States and the Philippines.
The virus (officially named SARS-CoV-2) has been responsible for over 100 million infections globally, causing around 2.5 million deaths. The United States is the country most affected.
The disease caused by contracting SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Let’s bust some myths.
Read on to learn:
- how this coronavirus is transmitted
- how it’s similar to and different from other coronaviruses
- how to prevent transmitting this virus to others if you suspect you’ve contracted it
What are the symptoms?
Doctors and scientists are learning new things about this virus every day. So far, we know that COVID-19 may not cause any symptoms for some people.
You may carry the virus for 2 days or up to 2 weeks before you develop symptoms.
Some common symptoms that have been specifically linked to COVID-19 include:
- shortness of breath
- a cough that gets more severe over time
Less common symptoms include:
- repeated shaking with chills
- sore throat
- muscle aches and pains
- loss of taste or smell
- a stuffy or runny nose
- gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
- discoloration of fingers or toes
- pink eye
However, individuals with COVID-19 may have some, all, or none of the above symptoms.
For instance, fever is often referred to as the most common symptom of COVID-19. However, a July 2020 study of 213 people with mild disease found that only 11.6 percent of them had experienced fever.
Most people with COVID-19 will only have a mild case.
According to the National Institute of Health’s COVID-19 treatment guidelines, people are characterized as having a mild case if they:
- have any of the typical symptoms of COVID-19 (such as cough, fatigue, or loss of taste or smell)
- don’t have shortness of breath or abnormal chest imaging
Mild cases can still have long-lasting effects. People who experience symptoms months after first contracting the virus — and after the virus is no longer detectable in their body — are referred to as long haulers.
According to a February 2021 research letter in JAMA Network Open, approximately one-third of people with COVID-19 had persistent symptoms as long as 9 months after infection.
A December 2020 literature review estimated that 17 percent of people with COVID-19 are actually asymptomatic. This means they have no symptoms at all.
Twenty percent of people who have COVID-19 and require any sort of senior care services are asymptomatic. The authors evaluated data from 13 studies to come up with their estimates.
A January 2021 literature review looked at 61 studies and reports about COVID-19. The researchers concluded that:
- At least one-third of all cases are asymptomatic.
- Almost 75 percent of people who are asymptomatic when they receive a positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result will remain asymptomatic. PCR tests include nasal swab tests.
Call emergency medical services if you have or someone you care for has any of the following symptoms:
- trouble breathing
- blue lips or a blue face
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- excessive drowsiness
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still investigating the full range of symptoms.
COVID-19 versus the flu
The 2019 coronavirus causes more deaths than the seasonal flu.
According to the CDC, an estimated 0.04 to 0.16 percent of people who developed the flu during the 2019–2020 flu season in the United States died by April 4, 2020.
In comparison, about 1.80 percent of those with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States have died as of March 2, 2021.
The flu and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms. Common flu symptoms include:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- body aches
What causes coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic. This means they first develop in animals before being transmitted to humans.
For the virus to be transmitted from animals to humans, a person has to come into close contact with an animal that has the infection.
Once the virus develops in people, coronaviruses can be transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets. This is a technical name for the wet stuff that moves through the air when you exhale, cough, sneeze, or talk.
The viral material hangs out in these droplets and can be breathed into the respiratory tract (your windpipe and lungs), where the virus can then lead to an infection.
It’s possible that you could acquire SARS-CoV-2 if you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching a surface or object that has the virus on it. However, this is not thought to be the main way that the virus is passed on.
SARS-CoV-2 can also be passed on via airborne transmission of small infectious particles that may linger in the air for minutes to hours.
However, contraction of an infection through close contact with people with SARS-CoV-2 — and their respiratory droplets — is currently thought to be much more common.
The 2019 coronavirus hasn’t been definitively linked to a specific animal.
Researchers believe that the virus may have been passed from bats to another animal — either snakes or pangolins — and then transmitted to humans.
Who’s at increased risk?
You’re at high risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 if you come into contact with someone who’s carrying it, especially if you’ve been exposed to their saliva or been near them when they’ve coughed, sneezed, or talked.
Without taking proper preventive measures, you’re also at high risk if you:
- live with someone who has contracted the virus
- are providing home care for someone who has contracted the virus
- have an intimate partner who has contracted the virus
Older adults and people with certain health conditions have a higher risk for severe complications if they contract the virus. These health conditions include:
- serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease (CAD), and cardiomyopathies
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- obesity, which occurs in people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher
- sickle cell anemia
- a weakened immune system from a solid organ transplant
- type 2 diabetes
COVID-19 and pregnancy
Pregnancy also puts you at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
The CDC reports that pregnant women are more likely to experience severe COVID-19 illness than nonpregnant women.
For instance, pregnant women entered the intensive care unit (ICU) at nearly three times the rate of nonpregnant women. Mortality rates for pregnant women are also higher.
According to a study from September 2020, women with COVID-19 are also more likely to have a preterm birth than women without COVID-19.
Transmitting the virus from mother to child during pregnancy isn’t likely, but the newborn is able to contract the virus after birth.
How are coronaviruses diagnosed?
COVID-19 can be diagnosed similarly to other conditions caused by viral infections: using a blood, saliva, or tissue sample.
However, most tests use a cotton swab to retrieve a sample from the inside of your nostrils.
Locations that conduct tests include:
- the CDC
- some state health departments
- commercial companies
- certain pharmacies
- clinics and hospitals
- emergency rooms
- community testing centers
Visit the websites of your state’s health department or the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to find out where testing is offered near you.
On November 17, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first emergency use authorization (EUA) for a COVID-19 self-testing kit.
The EUA specifies that the test kit is authorized for use by people ages 14 years and older whom healthcare professionals have identified as having suspected COVID-19.
The Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit is a rapid test, which means that the nasal swab sample doesn’t have to be sent off to a lab. The test kit is available by prescription only and promises results within 30 minutes.
Back on April 21, 2020, the FDA authorized the use of the first COVID-19 home collection kit. It’s produced by Pixel by LabCorp.
A cotton swab is provided, and people will be able to collect a nasal sample with it and mail it to a designated laboratory for testing.
It’s authorized for use by people ages 18 years and older.
In recent months, the FDA has also granted EUAs to additional at-home kits, including ones from Everlywell and QuickVue.
What treatments are available?
There’s currently no cure for an infection caused by the new coronavirus. However, many treatments and vaccines are currently under study.
On October 22, 2020, the FDA approved its first COVID-19 treatment, the medication remdesivir (Veklury). It’s available by prescription to treat COVID-19 in people ages 12 years and older who’ve been hospitalized. It’s administered as an intravenous (IV) infusion.
In November 2020, the FDA also granted EUAs to monoclonal antibody medications.
Monoclonal antibodies are human-made proteins that help the body develop an immune response against foreign-made substances such as viruses.
These medications are:
- bamlanivimab, from Eli Lilly
- casirivimab and imdevimab, which must be administered together, from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals
Like remdesivir, they’re also administered by IV infusion and intended to treat COVID-19 in people ages 12 years and older. These medications are used for outpatient therapy.
The FDA has also issued EUAs to a few other treatments, such as convalescent plasma, that are intended for treatment in people who are hospitalized or at high risk for hospitalization.
Most COVID-19 treatment focuses on managing symptoms as the virus runs its course.
Seek medical help if you think you have COVID-19. Your doctor will recommend treatment for any symptoms or complications that develop and let you know if you need to seek emergency treatment.
Treatments for other coronaviruses
Other coronaviruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are also treated by managing symptoms. In some cases, experimental treatments have been tested to see how effective they are.
Examples of therapies used for these illnesses include:
- antiviral or retroviral medications
- breathing support, such as mechanical ventilation
- steroids to help reduce lung swelling and inflammation
- blood plasma transfusions
What are the possible complications from COVID-19?
The most serious complication of COVID-19 is a type of pneumonia that’s been called 2019 novel coronavirus-infected pneumonia (NCIP).
Results from a 2020 study of 138 people admitted into hospitals in Wuhan with NCIP found that 26 percent of those admitted had severe cases and needed to be treated in the ICU.
The percentage of people who died from NCIP after being admitted to the hospital was 4.3 percent.
It should be noted that people who were admitted to the ICU were, on average, older and had more underlying health conditions than people who didn’t go to the ICU.
NCIP isn’t the only complication specifically linked to the 2019 coronavirus.
Researchers have seen the following complications in people who have developed COVID-19:
- acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
- irregular heart rate (arrhythmia)
- cardiogenic shock
- kidney injury or kidney failure (including needing dialysis)
- severe muscle pain
- heart damage or heart attack
How can you prevent coronaviruses?
The best way to prevent the transmission of the virus is to avoid or limit contact with people who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or any respiratory infection.
The next best thing you can do is practice good hygiene and physical distancing to help prevent bacteria and viruses from being transmitted.