Symptoms, spread and other essential information about the new coronavirus and COVID-19
As we continually learn more about coronavirus and COVID-19, it can help to reacquaint yourself with some basic information. For example, understanding how the virus spreads reinforces the importance of social distancing and other health-promoting behaviors. Knowing how long the virus survives on surfaces can guide how you clean your home and handle deliveries. And reviewing the common symptoms of COVID-19 can help you know if it's time to self-isolate.
What is coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are an extremely common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19, short for "coronavirus disease 2019," is the official name given by the World Health Organization to the disease caused by this newly identified coronavirus.
How many people have COVID-19?
The numbers are changing rapidly.
It has spread so rapidly and to so many countries that the World Health Organization has declared it a pandemic (a term indicating that it has affected a large population, region, country, or continent).
Do adults younger than 65 who are otherwise healthy need to worry about COVID-19?
Yes, they do. Though people younger than 65 are much less likely to die from COVID-19, they can get sick enough from the disease to require hospitalization. According to a report published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) in late March, nearly 40% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 between mid-February and mid-March were between the ages of 20 and 54. Drilling further down by age, MMWR reported that 20% of hospitalized patients and 12% of COVID-19 patients in ICUs were between the ages of 20 and 44.
People of any age should take preventive health measures like frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and wearing a mask when going out in public, to help protect themselves and to reduce the chances of spreading the infection to others.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Some people infected with the virus have no symptoms. When the virus does cause symptoms, common ones include fever, dry cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of smell, and body ache. In some people, COVID-19 causes more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.
People with COVID-19 are also experiencing neurological symptoms, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, or both. These may occur with or without respiratory symptoms.
For example, COVID-19 affects brain function in some people. Specific neurological symptoms seen in people with COVID-19 include loss of smell, inability to taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and stroke.
In addition, some people have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort associated with COVID-19. These symptoms might start before other symptoms such as fever, body ache, and cough. The virus that causes COVID-19 has also been detected in stool, which reinforces the importance of hand washing after every visit to the bathroom and regularly disinfecting bathroom fixtures.
Can COVID-19 symptoms worsen rapidly after several days of illness?
Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of smell, and body ache. In some people, COVID-19 causes more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.
A person may have mild symptoms for about one week, then worsen rapidly. Let your doctor know if your symptoms quickly worsen over a short period of time. Also call the doctor right away if you or a loved one with COVID-19 experience any of the following emergency symptoms: trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or inability to arouse the person, or bluish lips or face.
One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. What does that mean?
Shortness of breath refers to unexpectedly feeling out of breath, or winded. But when should you worry about shortness of breath? There are many examples of temporary shortness of breath that are not worrisome. For example, if you feel very anxious, it's common to get short of breath and then it goes away when you calm down.
However, if you find that you are ever breathing harder or having trouble getting air each time you exert yourself, you always need to call your doctor. That was true before we had the recent outbreak of COVID-19, and it will still be true after it is over.
Meanwhile, it's important to remember that if shortness of breath is your only symptom, without a cough or fever, something other than COVID-19 is the likely problem.
Can COVID-19 affect brain function?
COVID-19 does appear to affect brain function in some people. Specific neurological symptoms seen in people with COVID-19 include loss of smell, inability to taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and stroke.
One study that looked at 214 people with moderate to severe COVID-19 in Wuhan, China found that about one-third of those patients had one or more neurological symptoms. Neurological symptoms were more common in people with more severe disease.
Neurological symptoms have also been seen in COVID-19 patients in the US and around the world. Some people with neurological symptoms tested positive for COVID-19 but did not have any respiratory symptoms like coughing or difficulty breathing; others experienced both neurological and respiratory symptoms.
Experts do not know how the coronavirus causes neurological symptoms. They may be a direct result of infection or an indirect consequence of inflammation or altered oxygen and carbon dioxide levels caused by the virus.
The CDC has added "new confusion or inability to rouse" to its list of emergency warning signs that should prompt you to get immediate medical attention.
Is a lost sense of smell a symptom of COVID-19? What should I do if I lose my sense of smell?
Increasing evidence suggests that a lost sense of smell, known medically as anosmia, may be a symptom of COVID-19. This is not surprising, because viral infections are a leading cause of loss of sense of smell, and COVID-19 is a caused by a virus. Still, loss of smell might help doctors identify people who do not have other symptoms, but who might be infected with the COVID-19 virus — and who might be unwittingly infecting others.
A statement written by a group of ear, nose and throat specialists (otolaryngologists) in the United Kingdom reported that in Germany, two out of three confirmed COVID-19 cases had a loss of sense of smell; in South Korea, 30% of people with mild symptoms who tested positive for COVID-19 reported anosmia as their main symptom.
On March 22nd, the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery recommended that anosmia be added to the list of COVID-19 symptoms used to screen people for possible testing or self-isolation.
In addition to COVID-19, loss of smell can also result from allergies as well as other viruses, including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold. So anosmia alone does not mean you have COVID-19. Studies are being done to get more definitive answers about how common anosmia is in people with COVID-19, at what point after infection loss of smell occurs, and how to distinguish loss of smell caused by COVID-19 from loss of smell caused by allergies, other viruses, or other causes altogether.
Until we know more, tell your doctor right away if you find yourself newly unable to smell. He or she may prompt you to get tested and to self-isolate.
How long is it between when a person is exposed to the virus and when they start showing symptoms?
Recently published research found that on average, the time from exposure to symptom onset (known as the incubation period) is about five to six days. However, studies have shown that symptoms could appear as soon as three days after exposure to as long as 13 days later. These findings continue to support the CDC recommendation of self-quarantine and monitoring of symptoms for 14 days post exposure.
How does coronavirus spread?
The coronavirus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. This can happen between people who are in close contact with one another. Droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes may land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs.
A person infected with coronavirus — even one with no symptoms — may emit aerosols when they talk or breathe. Aerosols are infectious viral particles that can float or drift around in the air for up to three hours. Another person can breathe in these aerosols and become infected with the coronavirus. This is why everyone should cover their nose and mouth when they go out in public.
Coronavirus can also spread from contact with infected surfaces or objects. For example, a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.
How could contact tracing help slow the spread of COVID-19?
Anyone who comes into close contact with someone who has COVID-19 is at increased risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially infecting others. Contact tracing can help prevent further transmission of the virus by quickly identifying and informing people who may be infected and contagious, so they can take steps to not infect others.
Contact tracing begins with identifying everyone that a person recently diagnosed with COVID-19 has been in contact with since they became contagious. In the case of COVID-19, a person may be contagious 48 to 72 hours before they started to experience symptoms.
The contacts are notified about their exposure. They may be told what symptoms to look out for, advised to isolate themselves for a period of time, and to seek medical attention as needed if they start to experience symptoms.
How deadly is COVID-19?
The answer depends on whether you're looking at the fatality rate (the risk of death among those who are infected) or the total number of deaths. So far, influenza has caused far more total deaths this flu season, both in the US and worldwide, than COVID-19. This is why you may have heard it said that the flu is a bigger threat.
Regarding the fatality rate, it appears that the risk of death with the pandemic coronavirus infection (commonly estimated at about 1%) is far less than it was for SARS (approximately 11%) and MERS (about 35%), but will likely be higher than the risk from seasonal flu (which averages about 0.1%). We will have a more accurate estimate of fatality rate for this coronavirus infection once testing becomes more available.
What we do know so far is the risk of death very much depends on your age and your overall health. Children appear to be at very low risk of severe disease and death. Older adults and those who smoke or have chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease have a higher chance of developing complications like pneumonia, which could be deadly.
Will warm weather slow or stop the spread of COVID-19?
Some viruses, like the common cold and flu, spread more when the weather is colder. But it is still possible to become sick with these viruses during warmer months.
At this time, we do not know for certain whether the spread of COVID-19 will decrease when the weather warms up. But a new report suggests that warmer weather may not have much of an impact.
The report, published in early April by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, summarized research that looked at how well the COVID-19 coronavirus survives in varying temperatures and humidity levels, and whether the spread of this coronavirus may slow in warmer and more humid weather.
The report found that in laboratory settings, higher temperatures and higher levels of humidity decreased survival of the COVID-19 coronavirus. However, studies looking at viral spread in varying climate conditions in the natural environment had inconsistent results.
The researchers concluded that conditions of increased heat and humidity alone may not significantly slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
How long can the coronavirus stay airborne? I have read different estimates.
A study done by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Laboratory of Virology in the Division of Intramural Research in Hamilton, Montana helps to answer this question. The researchers used a nebulizer to blow coronaviruses into the air. They found that infectious viruses could remain in the air for up to three hours. The results of the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17, 2020.
How long can the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 survive on surfaces?
A recent study found that the COVID-19 coronavirus can survive up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The researchers also found that this virus can hang out as droplets in the air for up to three hours before they fall. But most often they will fall more quickly.
There's a lot we still don't know, such as how different conditions, such as exposure to sunlight, heat, or cold, can affect these survival times.
As we learn more, continue to follow the CDC's recommendations for cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects every day. These include counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables.
If surfaces are dirty, first clean them using a detergent and water, then disinfect them. A list of products suitable for use against COVID-19 is available here. This list has been pre-approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In addition, wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water after bringing in packages, or after trips to the grocery store or other places where you may have come into contact with infected surfaces.
Should I accept packages from China?
There is no reason to suspect that packages from China harbor coronavirus. Remember, this is a respiratory virus similar to the flu. We don't stop receiving packages from China during their flu season. We should follow that same logic for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Can I catch the coronavirus by eating food handled or prepared by others?
We are still learning about transmission of the new coronavirus. It's not clear if it can be spread by an infected person through food they have handled or prepared, but if so it would more likely be the exception than the rule.
That said, the new coronavirus is a respiratory virus known to spread by upper respiratory secretions, including airborne droplets after coughing or sneezing. The virus that causes COVID-19 has also been detected in the stool of certain people. So we currently cannot rule out the possibility of the infection being transmitted through food by an infected person who has not thoroughly washed their hands. In the case of hot food, the virus would likely be killed by cooking. This may not be the case with uncooked foods like salads or sandwiches.
The flu kills more people than COVID-19, at least so far. Why are we so worried about COVID-19? Shouldn't we be more focused on preventing deaths from the flu?
You're right to be concerned about the flu. Fortunately, the same measures that help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus — frequent and thorough handwashing, not touching your face, coughing and sneezing into a tissue or your elbow, avoiding people who are sick, and staying away from people if you're sick — also help to protect against spread of the flu.
If you do get sick with the flu, your doctor can prescribe an antiviral drug that can reduce the severity of your illness and shorten its duration. There are currently no antiviral drugs available to treat COVID-19.
Should I get a flu shot?
While the flu shot won't protect you from developing COVID-19, it's still a good idea. Most people older than six months can and should get the flu vaccine. Doing so reduces the chances of getting seasonal flu. Even if the vaccine doesn't prevent you from getting the flu, it can decrease the chance of severe symptoms. But again, the flu vaccine will not protect you against this coronavirus.
- Get your affairs in order, COVID-19 won't wait
- Be careful where you get your news about coronavirus
- Is there any good news about the coronavirus pandemic?
- Allergies? Common cold? Flu? Or COVID-19?
A Harvard infectious diseases doctor looks at COVID-19 (recorded 3/3/20)
Dr. Todd Ellerin is on the front lines of infectious disease containment and mitigation as the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He's an instructor at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. We spoke to him this week to get an update on the rapidly developing story surrounding the coronavirus Covid-19.
Coronavirus status report: Harvard public health expert Dr. Ashish K. Jha fills us in on where we are headed (recorded 3/19/20)
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused markets to collapse and worldwide health systems to become overwhelmed. When there's a global pandemic, it's nice to hear from the steady, transparent and yes even reassuring voice of experts on the front lines. We spoke to Dr. Ashish K. Jha, faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Dr. Jha's recent appearance on the PBS Newshour caused reverberations throughout the federal and state response system. Here's his update.
For more information on coronavirus and COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center.
Image: gemphotography/Getty Images
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.