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What is Coronavirus (COVID-19)? An Explanation

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

You’ve surely heard of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) by now. You may think that it is something serious that should be avoided at all costs, or you may treat it like the common cold. The fact of the matter is that there’s lots of conflicting information and complete misinformation on the virus, which has resulted in mass hysteria. Rumors and deceptions have been spreading faster than the virus itself, through media channels, social media networks, and word of mouth. But why not get your information from a trusted source? In this article, you’ll get an accurate picture of what COVID-19 actually is.

What is Coronavirus?


Firstly, “coronavirus” is not one singular virus. There are different kinds of coronaviruses, some of which are benign and some of which cause disease. The recent outbreak of coronavirus is being referred to as the “novel corona virus” (because it seems to be a new type of coronavirus) or “COVID-19” (an abbreviation of “coronavirus” and the year it was first identified). 

COVID-19 is an infectious disease that causes cough, fever, and shortness of breath. It can lead to serious respiratory problems (such as pneumonia), kidney failure (usually for those whose kidneys are already compromised), or even death (usually in the elderly or those with underlying health conditions), but only in rare cases. This article discusses COVID-19 rather than other types of coronavirus.


Where did it come from?


COVID-19 first appeared in late 2019, originating in Wuhan—a city in China. Health experts are still not sure what exactly caused the outbreak, but the generally accepted answer is that it came from a “wet market”–an outdoor market where vendors sell fish, chicken, and other creatures such as foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, and snakes. Researchers are still looking into how it spread in the first place.

Is there a cure or treatment for COVID-19?


Currently there is no cure or vaccine for COVID-19. However, there are precautions you can take to prevent contracting the virus, and if you are infected, there are treatments that help manage symptoms.

How can I protect myself from getting the virus?


  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, covering all surfaces of your hands (backs, too), for about 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer if soap isn’t available.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Discard the tissue afterwards, and wash your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • If you feel sick, even if you think it’s not COVID-19, stay at home.
  • Clean surfaces and objects that have been touched by other people.
  • Stay away from others. You don’t have to stay completely inside; you can sit outside or take a walk if the weather is nice. Just avoid other people or stay at least 6 feet away from them. 
  • Quarantine yourself. This is not necessary for the majority of people, but if you fall into an at-risk category, you may want to completely quarantine yourself.  

I think I have COVID-19. What do I do?


If you suspect that you may have the virus, call your doctor or healthcare provider. Tell them if you’ve traveled outside the country in the last two weeks, and let them know if you’ve been in contact with someone else who has the virus. Do not call 911 unless you are experiencing a medical emergency. 


Should I be concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak?


There’s no reason to panic. The COVID-19 virus has a 3-4% mortality rate, according to the WHO, which may seem high, but it could be that mild cases have not been reported and this figure is skewed. The mortality rate can be greatly reduced with access to quality healthcare. Those who are most at risk include the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic medical conditions. If you are concerned for yourself or a loved one or simply want to reduce your chances of getting the virus, follow the precautions listed above.

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