A Guide to Coronavirus

What is coronavirus?

A coronavirus is a common type of virus which can cause illnesses to develop in the airways and lungs (which are medically referred to as the respiratory tract). 

There are many different types of coronaviruses, and they have actually been around for quite some time. They were first identified in humans in the 1960s and have been infecting people ever since. These older strains of coronavirus can range from causing mild infections such as the common cold, to causing more severe respiratory infections in the lungs and airways (1).

In December 2019, the first cases of a new type of coronavirus were first reported in Wuhan, China (2). This new coronavirus was called a “novel coronavirus” as it had never been identified in humans before, and this is the coronavirus that is now commonly spoken about in the media. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have recently announced the official name for this new coronavirus, which is now called coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19 (3). This new name issued by WHO helps to distinguish this new coronavirus from the many other coronaviruses that circulate amongst humans.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

The common symptoms caused by this new coronavirus are very similar to any other sort of viral chest infection and include the following (1):

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Feeling generally unwell

In some cases however, more severe symptoms can develop such as (1&4):

A sick woman sitting in bed holding a cup of coffee

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

  • Pneumonia (swelling and inflammation of the tissue in the lungs)
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
  • Kidney failure
  • Death

These symptoms can of course vary hugely from person to person. For some people, the symptoms may be very severe (with some cases even leading to death), whilst in other people, these symptoms may be much milder and the infected person may not even realise that they have the coronavirus infection.

Where did the new coronavirus come from?

Coronaviruses are called “zoonotic” viruses because they are spread from animals to humans (1).

The original animal source of this new coronavirus (COVID-19) is still being investigated, but initial analysis of the virus suggests that it originated in bats, but it is not yet confirmed if the virus spread to another animal first before infecting humans (3 ).

A brown bat spreading its wings and flying next to a flower

Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

Are there other types of severe coronaviruses?

Yes unfortunately there are. There are two older types of coronavirus that have been spread amongst humans and that also cause severe diseases to develop in the airways and lungs. These are (1):

The number 1

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV)

The MERS coronavirus was spread from bats to dromedary camels to humans (1&3). 

The number 2

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV)

The SARS coronavirus was spread from bats to civet cats to humans (1&3).

How serious is the new coronavirus and who is most at risk?

Panic and fear seem to be spreading just as quickly as the virus itself, but how worried should we be? It is undeniable that this virus is spreading at a quick pace – however, it is important to recognise that the majority of deaths have been seen in people from high-risk groups for developing any infection, such as:

  • People with weak immune systems (for example those with auto-immune diseases or people who are taking strong immunosuppressive medications)
  • People with diabetes
  • Young children and babies
  • Elderly people
  • Cancer patients
  • People with pre-existing lung disease
  • People with any underlying serious medical condition

The above groups of people have a high risk of developing any infection, not just the new coronavirus. It is important to be aware that other less publicised infections can also be dangerous to this group of people. For example the common flu, which is predicted to cause the deaths of around 34,000 people in this year alone (5).  

Even if you do not belong to any of the above groups of people, it is still important for everyone to be aware of what is happening and to take appropriate precautions regardless of your age or health status. This helps the community work together to reduce the spread of the virus, which can help prevent the deaths of the most vulnerable people.

How many people have died from the new coronavirus?

As of 1st April 2020 at 13:32 pm, there have been 873,767 reported cases across the world, and there have been 43,288 reported deaths as a result of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) (6). At the time of writing, there have been 694 reported cases of COVID-19 in Iraq, and 50 deaths so far (6).

To keep track of the number of worldwide reported cases and deaths due to the new coronavirus you can click here .

Is there a treatment or vaccine for coronavirus?

There is currently no specific treatment or vaccination for COVID-19. People who have the virus are given supportive treatment for their specific symptoms. If you think you have been exposed to the virus, then you should call your doctor as soon as possible to get advice on the best treatment plan for you (7).

How can we prevent it from spreading?

There has been a large amount of media coverage of this outbreak and many governments have introduced quarantine regulations to isolate those who are potentially infectious. The World Health Organisation releases regular updates on the situation, and currently rates the global risk posed by COVID-19 as high (8). 

All air travel out of Wuhan, China has been suspended, and passengers arriving in other countries from the area are screened for a fever at their final destination. Many governments have also advised their citizens to avoid travelling to China unless it is essential, to minimise the risk of catching and passing on the virus (9). These measures may seem extreme, but preventing the virus from spreading is much safer and more efficient than trying to care for an extremely large number of individuals once they have become infected with the virus.

Steps for reducing the spread of coronavirus

These global precautions are sensible and theoretically reduce the risk of spread amongst nations, but what can we do as individuals to protect ourselves and those around us from becoming infected? 

Below we have outlined some simple but effective measures that you can take to reduce your personal risk of picking up viral infections, including the new coronavirus (COVID-19) (7&10):

Man washing his hands in the sink.

Photo by Gallery DS on Unsplash

1. Wash your hands frequently

Hand hygiene is one of the most important steps in reducing transmission of a wide range of bacterial and viral infections. Everything from food poisoning to coronavirus can be transferred from person to person via dirty hands. It is important to understand that even though your hands may not look dirty, they can still harbour millions of potentially disease-causing organisms. 

You should wash your hands at the following times (11):

  • After you sneeze, cough or blow your nose
  • After using the toilet
  • Before and after preparing food
  • Before you eat
  • Before and after you touch any breaks in the skin such as cuts
  • After helping your child use the toilet or after you change them
  • After touching an animal, their food, habitat or waste
  • After handling rubbish
  • Before and after touching someone or the environment of someone who has any sort of infection 

Follow these steps when washing your hands to ensure you are using a good technique:

  • Use clean water and soap
  • Wet your hands first and then use the soap, ensuring to cover all areas of your hands and wrists, including between the fingers and under the nails
  • Spend 20-30 seconds rubbing the soap in before rinsing it off
  • Dry your hands on a clean towel or cloth

A good portable alternative to soap and water is hand sanitiser, which can be bought in small containers so that you can carry it with you wherever you go. It has been shown to be less effective than traditional soap and water, especially when you have a lot of visible dirt on your hands, but it can be more practical and quicker than searching for a supply of clean water and soap (12). 

Sick man rubbing his nose with a tissue.

Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash

2. Cough and sneeze into a tissue, then throw it in the bin

To help reduce the spread of infections, you should always cough and sneeze directly into a tissue. This is particularly important in busy or public places such as at work, or when using public transport. This is because the tiny particles from your cough or sneeze can spread through the air and contaminate surfaces like seats and handrails which are then touched by lots of other people (13). 

However, just sneezing into a tissue isn’t enough to stop the spread of bacteria and viruses. You must throw your tissue into the bin after coughing or sneezing into it. Germs can survive for several hours outside of the body and can therefore linger on the used tissue. Make sure you do not leave used tissues lying around, and do not leave them in your pockets. After throwing the tissue away, you should also wash your hands (7&10).

A man's hand holding a handrail

Photo by Bora Sözüer on Unsplash

3. Be wary of what you touch

Following on from the previous point, it is also a good idea to think about preventing the spread of viruses and bacteria even when you are completely well. Particularly during the colder months of the year and during this outbreak of coronavirus, you should think about taking steps to minimise exposure to germs. 

The most practical way to do this is to be mindful of what you come into contact with. Try and avoid visiting unwell friends and family if it is a purely social visit, and do not eat food prepared by someone who may be unwell. When you are out and about in public, carry hand sanitiser with you and use it after touching stair rails and the insides of trains and buses. 

gaia medical

Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash

4. Avoid touching your face, eyes and mouth

If possible, you should avoid touching your face, eyes or mouth. This is because your hands carry a lot of germs, and the easiest way for these germs to get inside your body is through your mouth, eyes and nose. If you need to touch these areas, you should always try to wash your hands first (7&10). 

woman sitting on a bench alone wearing a coronavirus face mask.

Photo by Clément Falize on Unsplash

5. Distance yourself from others in public

When you are out in public, you should try to keep a distance of at least 1 metre (3 feet) from other people around you, especially if they are coughing or sneezing, or if they have a fever (10). 

Person lying on a sofa covering themselves with a blanket

Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

6. Stay home if you are sick with mild symptoms

If you start to feel sick and are experiencing mild symptoms, you should try your best to stay at home to prevent spreading the infection to other people. If you are worried about your symptoms or are unsure of the best course of action to take, you should call your doctor’s office and ask for advice. If you start to develop severe symptoms, then you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible. 

A doctor treating a patient on his bedside table

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

7. Seek medical attention early if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing

Some countries advise that you call your doctor before visiting the hospital or clinic first, as you may be able to help reduce the spread of the virus by staying at home. In some cases, if your symptoms are severe, you may be asked to visit your doctor’s office or hospital directly. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, then you should seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

A woman wearing a face mask

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

8. Wear a face mask only if you are sick, a health worker or if you are caring for someone in a close setting

The CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) does not recommend that you wear a facemask if you are feeling physically well. They recommend that facemasks should only be used by people who have symptoms of COVID-19 so that they can help reduce the spread of the disease to other people. They also state that the use of facemasks is essential for health workers and people who are taking care of other people in close settings either at home or in a healthcare facility (7).

Of course, even if you strictly adhere to all of these points, it is still possible that you may catch a virus or bacterial illness.  Despite this, these recommendations will help to stop the spread of many illnesses caused by germs, and should be followed particularly strictly if you or someone you live with falls into one of the high risk groups outlined at the beginning of the article.

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  9. Jarvis, S. (2020). Covid-19: the latest UK coronavirus guideline updates. [online] Patient.info. Available at: https://patient.info/news-and-features/coronavirus-latest-uk-guidelines-updated [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  10.  Who.int. (2020). Q&A on coronaviruses. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  11.  Cdc.gov. (2020). When and How to Wash Your Hands | Handwashing | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
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