What You Need To Know About Coronavirus

Last reviewed: 26/03/2020 by Dr Babak Ashrafi

What is Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a type of virus that are usually found in animals, which can sometimes be transmitted to humans. The Coronavirus going around right now causes the illness called COVID-19.

While there’s not a lot of information out there, because COVID-19 is a new disease, it's thought the virus is carried in tiny droplets that are spread when you cough or sneeze, or aerosols exhaled through breathing. This is similar to other viruses, like the flu.

These droplets can also land on surfaces, and it’s thought that the virus can survive there for up to 72 hours (3 days). This is why it’s important to regularly wash your hands and avoid touching your face, as you can pick the virus up from touching a contaminated surface.

How can I protect myself and others against Coronavirus?

To avoid infection you should:

  • avoid contact with people who have or may been exposed to coronavirus
  • avoid unnecessary travel - especially public transport if possible
  • make sure you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 to 30 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use alcohol-based hand rub instead
  • use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and then dispose of it
  • if you don’t have a tissue to hand, cough or sneeze into your elbow 
  • try not to touch your face until or unless you’ve washed your hands first
  • practise ‘social distancing’: this means that you should avoid leaving your home unless absolutely necessary. If you do need to go out (to get supplies, go to the pharmacy, or go to work), you must try to keep at least 2 metres away from anyone else, wherever you are. Congregating in crowds or groups is a significant way that this virus is being spread

Do face masks protect you against Coronavirus?

The government has stated that face masks must be worn on public transport and when inside shops at all times.

Face masks are more effective for healthcare professionals and those who are already infected, by lowering the chances that they can pass it on to others. 

What are the symptoms of Coronavirus?

Coronavirus does not always have symptoms, so many people may be carrying the virus without showing any signs of infection at all.

For people who do show signs of infection, the main symptoms of coronavirus are getting a fever, a continuous dry cough or loss of taste or smell. This can occasionally lead to shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Some people might develop more common 'cold' symptoms too.

Other coronavirus symptoms include:

  • muscle aches
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness and fatigue

What should I do if I get Coronavirus symptoms?

Firstly - don’t panic! Most people who get coronavirus will not need hospital treatment, and will fully recover at home with bed rest. You should also self-isolate to help prevent the spread of the virus to vulnerable people who may need hospital treatment if they are infected.

If you start showing any of the above symptoms, the most current advice issued by the Government is to self-isolate for 10 days from when you first develop symptoms.

If someone who lives with you develops symptoms, everybody who lives there should self-isolate for 14 days. This is because other people in the house may already be infected, but not showing symptoms yet.

If you think you have coronavirus, use the NHS 111 online assessment to find out what steps to take next. DO NOT go to your GP or A&E, as you may spread the virus to vulnerable people. If you’re concerned that you’re becoming seriously ill and need additional medical support, you can also call NHS 111.

Some people have a higher risk of developing a more serious illness, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, if they are infected with coronavirus. At-risk groups include:

  • elderly people (aged 65+)
  • those with pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease
  • those with weakened immune systems, or on immunosuppressants
If you’re in an at-risk group, or care for someone who is, call 111 if you get any symptoms.

How is Coronavirus spread?

So far, it is thought that the coronavirus spreads in the same way as other viruses such as the flu or the common cold. The coronavirus lives in tiny water droplets, which are spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. When these droplets are breathed in, it can cause an infection. The virus is also passed around in even smaller particles called aerosols which are breathed out by someone who is infected. These aerosols can linger in the air for several hours, especially if there is no ventilation.

Viral particles can also land on surfaces, and may be able to survive outside the human body for 72 hours (3 days). If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face without washing your hands, you could also catch the virus that way.

More research is being done to see if there are other ways of transmitting the virus.

What is 'social distancing'?

Social distancing is the term used to describe the distancing of people from one another. In short, it means you should try to stay at least 2 metres away from everyone else, apart from those you live with unless they're in an at-risk group (see below). If you live with anyone from an 'at-risk' group, you should try to keep 2 metres away from them, even at home. Do not share things like cutlery or mugs, and try to avoid physical contact as much as possible, especially if you're going out to work or to the shops where there's the potential of picking up the virus. 

The government is now requiring people to stay at home, except in these circumstances:
  • To shop for essential items
  • To fulfil any medical needs
  • To go to work where you're unable to work from home and your work is absolutely necessary
  • To exercise once a day

Who is in the 'at-risk' group?

Those classified as 'at-risk' have been told to practice social distancing more strictly and to avoid going out at all. This group includes:
  • everyone over 70
  • anyone under 70 who would normally be invited for an annual flu jab because of their underlying health condition
  • pregnant women

How can I get help if I am extremely vulnerable?

If you have a medical condition which makes you extremely vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19), you can register and inform the appropriate agencies whether or not you need support. This is where you should start: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

You may have received a letter from the NHS telling you that you’re clinically more vulnerable, or been contacted by your GP or hospital clinician. If this has not happened, contact your GP after you register with this service.
It may take time for any support offered through this service to arrive. Wherever possible you should continue to rely on friends, family and wider support to help you meet your needs.

How can I stay safe on public transport?

You should try to avoid using public transport unless absolutely necessary, especially if you are in an at-risk group (which now includes pregnant women and those over 70 years of age). 

Surfaces and handrails on public transport and in train stations also carry lots of bacteria and viruses which can cause anything from flu to gastrointestinal infections. 

If you need to use public transport, here are some top tips to help you stay safe:
  • wear a face mask at all times
  • carry some alcohol hand gel to disinfect your hands after your journey
  • if possible, take a seat away from other passengers
  • try not to touch your face during your journey
  • carry a pack of tissues to cough or sneeze into 
  • don’t eat meals or snacks on public transport, and wash your hands before you eat
  • wash your hands with soap and warm water after you've used public transport

Should I still travel abroad?

In general, travelling abroad right now is not advised. Many countries are limiting inbound and outbound flights, so you may find yourself stuck abroad, and many flights are being cancelled.

If you’re planning to travel abroad, the best thing to do is to check the advice on Gov.uk

Pregnancy and Coronavirus

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have issued a joint statement reassuring women who are pregnant:

“The three Royal Colleges, who between them care for and support women and their babies throughout pregnancy, birth and childhood, reiterate that there is currently no new evidence to suggest that pregnant women are at greater risk from coronavirus (COVID-19) than other healthy individuals, or that they can pass the infection to their baby while pregnant.” 

The government’s suggestion that pregnant women should reduce social contact is a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of preterm birth if the mother becomes unwell, and reduce the theoretical risk to the baby’s growth. 

Reports have since come through suggesting that there may have been a small number of cases where the virus seems to have been passed on from the mother to the baby before birth in China. All of these children recovered, and only a few showed symptoms of infection. Due to this, pregnant women should try to stay at home as per government advice, and if any symptoms of possible COVID-19 develop, you should speak to your antenatal team.

Ibuprofen and Coronavirus

Some recent studies suggest that taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen might make it harder for your immune system to fight off respiratory infections, like pneumonia. This means that an infection could lead to more severe illness. 

Right now there is no conclusive evidence saying taking ibuprofen is harmful if you are infected with COVID-19, and rumours of people becoming unwell from taking ibuprofen seem to be false or coincidental. However, you should try not to take anti-inflammatories unless you absolutely have to. If you have a fever or pain that needs treatment, use paracetamol instead. 

If you are already taking anti-inflammatory medication for another condition, you should carry on taking it as normal. If you become ill with a respiratory infection, you should speak to your doctor about what to do next.

Blood pressure, heart tablets and COVID-19

The Renal Association UK published this statement on some BP and heart tablets on 15 March 2020:
“Recent media reports that ACE Inhibitor drugs (‘pril’ drugs) and Angiotensin receptor blockers (‘sartan’ drugs) may increase the risk of death from novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection will provoke anxiety for many people with kidney disease and leave them uncertain about the best action to take.

Patients are prescribed these medications for several reasons and for some people, particularly those with heart failure, stopping the drugs suddenly can lead them to become unwell. This can cause people to become more breathless and may create uncertainty about whether symptoms are due to infection (such as COVID-19), or to underlying health problems.

The evidence that these medications increase the risk of death is unconvincing: the reports may simply reflect the fact that people taking the drugs are more likely to have conditions that place them at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection.

We, therefore, advise people taking these medications to continue to take them. If they become unwell such that they need to seek medical help, the doctor may recommend stopping the drugs depending on their clinical condition.
We are continuing to review the evidence as it comes in and will update this advice as needed.”

Smoking and COVID-19

It’s widely known that smoking can reduce immunity to a small degree, and because of the effect it has on the lungs, it can make you more susceptible to catching viruses. If you smoke, your infection might last longer than it would otherwise, and be more severe. Now might be the perfect time for you to stop. 

More questions about coronavirus

Can coronavirus be transferred through sex?

Right now there's no evidence that coronavirus can pass on through bodily fluids like sperm or vaginal fluids. However, we do know that the virus can spread orally (including through kissing) and through close physical contact, so it is definitely not advised to have sex with someone who has coronavirus, or may have been exposed to it.

Can I get the virus from my pets?

There are reports of a very small number of animals having been infected by humans (notably a tiger at a zoo in the USA, a cat in Belgium and a couple of dogs in Hong Kong). Coronavirus seems to be passed on to cats more easily than dogs in laboratory experiments that have taken place, but so far there’s no evidence that it can be passed back to humans as they do not secrete enough virus to be able to pass it to us. So the current advice is that we are safe to interact with our pets as usual. 

Are you immune once you've had it?

When you catch a virus, your body usually learns how to fight it off, or becomes better at recognising it and defending against it next time around. After you've fully recovered, your immune system has learned how to fight off the virus and can protect you from a future infection. However, our immune system can forget over time how to do this and immunity can eventually wear off.

Research being done seems to suggest that some people develop an antibody response that lasts longer than others, and there are other parts of the immune system which also become active and have a role in neutralising a recurrent infection. There have been a handful of cases of reinfection up till now, but we might expect most of us to react to this new virus the same way we do to the common cold - getting it every once in a while but not in as severe a form as we initially might do. We just don’t know yet.

I've had the flu jab, am I protected?

Unfortunately not. The coronavirus is not the same virus as the flu, so the flu jab offers no protection against it. 

When will we have a cure or vaccine?

While there are treatments that can help you manage the symptoms of the coronavirus while your body fights off the infection, there are currently no medications that can cure an existing and there isn’t a vaccine that can protect you from future infection.

There is ongoing research into developing a coronavirus vaccine, though this is likely to take months to develop, trial, and distribute. There is also research into whether existing drugs for other conditions could be used to treat coronavirus, and some of the initial results are looking promising.

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