What You Need to Know About the Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)

Find out what it is, the most common symptoms, who's likely to get it, best ways to treat, how to prevent, and more.

A Buoy Health Special adapted with permission from Harvard Health Publishing.

What Is It

Coronaviruses are very common. They are often the reason you get a cold or similar kind of upper respiratory infection. (Nose, throat, and voice box are all part of the upper respiratory system.) This version of the coronavirus—called 2019-nCoV—affects lower respiratory organs like the lungs.

Most Common Symptoms

The symptoms are similar to the flu or a cold. Though, according to Dr. Todd Ellerin, instructor at Harvard Medical School writing for Harvard Health Publishing, “There are some early reports of non-respiratory symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.” Many people feel better after a few days. But, as Dr. Ellerin points out in his blog post, “For the sickest patients with this illness, specialized, aggressive care in an intensive care unit (ICU) can be lifesaving."

Main Symptoms

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

There may be instances where a person gets sicker. For some people, this virus can become a severe illness like bronchitis or pneumonia. (Or, in relatively rare instances so far, be fatal.) The most susceptible to having complications seem to be the very young, the elderly, and those with an underlying health condition or a weakened immune system.

Other Possible Symptoms

Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

What Makes You More Likely to Get Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)

First, it seems you need to have had close contact with someone who is a confirmed carrier of the virus. Also, that person (or you) probably would have recently visited Hubei Province, China. (It may be expanded to include other areas of China.) People traveling from China are being screened for the illness at designated U.S. airports. At the time of this writing, there are eleven diagnosed cases in the U.S.

What To Do Next

Stay calm. The average person is unlikely to get sick from this virus. “This winter, in fact, we are much more likely to get influenza B—the flu—than any other virus,” Dr. Ellerin writes in his blog. “One in 10 people have influenza each flu season.”

So if you or your family members haven't had the flu shot yet, get it. It is still a good idea. Even when the flu shot does not completely protect you, it may stop your illness from becoming much worse than it could be.

If you’re concerned that you may have the virus, call your doctor or a health care provider. Unless it is a medical emergency, follow their advice before going to their office, urgent care, the ER, or the hospital.

Why It Happens

Scientists are working hard at studying and learning about this coronavirus. Generally, these types of viruses do not spread through the air as far as other viruses can, which is a good thing. (Measles and chickenpox are believed to travel a longer distance in the air.) One possible reason for the outbreak is that 2019-nCoV may be a mutation of a less harmful coronavirus.

How to Treat

If someone in your family has cold or flu symptoms, you may not know what virus is causing it. Generally, treatment for 2019-nCoV would be the same as you would do for any cold or flu. Right now, there is not any antiviral specifically for 2019-nCoV. Most important, anyone who is sick should stay home until they feel better.

  • Take medication for fever and other symptoms as needed.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water, tea, and other liquids.
  • Rest in bed.
  • If symptoms get worse, call your doctor.

Preventative Tips

Coughs and sneezes seem to be the most likely way to spread the virus. The best way to protect you and your family is to limit exposure.

  • Wash hands thoroughly. At least 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Always wash hands after being in public places with lots of people, like on a train. Or after shaking hands. Or signing something at a store. What's best is to avoid direct contact with other people's hands and shared objects.
  • Carry hand sanitizer or hand wipes for when you can't wash with warm water and soap.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. It can introduce germs directly into your body.
  • If someone seems sick, stay away from them as best as you can. And most definitely, if they are coughing and sneezing. Public health officials call this social distancing.
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze and cough. Use your inner elbow instead of your hand. And stay home if you are not feeling well—especially if you have a fever. After all, you want to help keep others from getting sick, too.
  • Do not panic. A lot of precautions are already in place to stop this coronavirus from spreading.

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