Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
The recent COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) outbreak is a reason for all of us to be concerned. It’s not a minor cold or even the flu. It is something to take seriously–which means taking all the necessary precautions to prevent contracting it or infecting others. Young, healthy individuals should not panic (though they should practice social distancing), but people who have chronic health conditions and the elderly are not so well-protected. Nonetheless, everyone young and old, sick and healthy, should be aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and what precautions to take.
Symptoms of COVID-19
Common symptoms of the virus include:
- Respiratory symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulties
- Sore throat
Less common symptoms include:
- Runny nose
Symptoms of COVID-19 do not always appear immediately after infection. In fact, it can take up to 14 days to experience symptoms.
Measures of Prevention
- 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.
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Some may not have a fever, for example. Some may not have symptoms at all, which can be a cause for concern. In fact, a large COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts with 82 confirmed cases was started by people who showed no symptoms.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 is mostly spread through those who clearly show symptoms. They say the virus mainly spreads from person-to-person, “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”
“Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” their website says.
US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar agrees: “You really need to just focus on the individuals that are symptomatic,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “It [the containment strategy] really does depend on symptomatic presentation.”
However, famed tech mogul and philanthropist Bill Gates thinks differently. “There is also strong evidence that it can be transmitted by people who are just mildly ill or even presymptomatic,” he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. “That means COVID-19 will be much harder to contain than the Middle East respiratory syndrome or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which were spread much less efficiently and only by symptomatic people.”
The reality is that we simply don’t know enough about COVID-19 to know how exactly it spreads, how widely it will travel, and the severity of its impact. Until scientists figure this all out, take precautions to stay healthy.