Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Last Updated April 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

An outbreak of COVID-19 (caused by the coronavirus) that started in China has spread worldwide. Scientists believe the outbreak started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It quickly spread to the rest of the globe. By September 2020, one million people from around the world had died from COVID-19. That number continues to rise. COVID-19 is a pandemic, which is a worldwide epidemic.

What is a coronavirus?

A coronavirus is a virus that is found in animals and, rarely, can be transmitted from animals to humans and then spread person to person. In addition to COVID-19, other human coronaviruses have included:

  • The MERS virus, or Middle East respiratory syndrome.
  • The SARS virus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which first occurred in the Guangdong province in southern China.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 symptoms range from mild to severe. It takes 2-14 days after exposure for symptoms to develop. Symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea

Those with weakened immune systems may develop more serious symptoms, like pneumonia or bronchitis. You may never develop symptoms after being exposed to COVID-19.

What causes a COVID-19 infection?

Humans first got the coronavirus from contact with an infected animal. Then, it spread from human to human.

The COVID-19 virus can be spread through contact with certain bodily fluids, such as droplets in a cough. It might also be caused by touching something an infected person has touched and then touching your hand to your mouth, nose, or eyes.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

If you believe you have COVID-19, the first step is to get a test. Testing availability may differ depending on where you live. Check your local health department to see what locations near you are doing testing. This may include hospitals and pharmacies that offer drive-thru testing. This will allow you to stay in your car to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. Depending on the location, someone may approach your car to collect a sample, or they may ask you to collect it yourself. Samples for COVID-19 viral tests are collected through nasal swabs. Depending on where you get your test, you may get your results the same day or you may have to wait a few days.

The FDA has also seen unauthorized fraudulent test kits for COVID-19 being sold online. Make sure you are only getting COVID-19 tests from trusted health care providers. If you have a question about the reliability of a test, speak to your family doctor. Find out more about COVID-19 testing.

If you have or believe you have COVID-19, your doctor may suggest you self-isolate to prevent the spread of infection. It’s also important to remember that even if you get a negative test, you may still need to self-isolate if you have been exposed to COVID-19. This is because it can take time after exposure for your sample to show a COVID-19 infection.

Do I need to quarantine if I have been exposed to COVID-19?

If you have been exposed to COVID-19 and do not have symptoms, you should quarantine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends a full 14-day quarantine. It gives you the lowest risk of spreading infection to others. However, the CDC recently gave some flexibility on quarantine length.

Keep in mind that local officials may determine quarantine requirements for different states or counties. Reducing the length of quarantine may not be an option in all areas. If you need to quarantine, you should follow any local requirements and recommendations.

The chart below highlights the different quarantine options described by the CDC. It also shows the increased risk of spreading the virus that is associated with each option. This guidance does not apply to people who have COVID-19 symptoms or people who have tested positive for COVID-19. More information about quarantine for COVID-19 is available on the CDC’s website.

Length of quarantine 

 

Who does this apply to? What to do during quarantine Risk of spreading COVID-19 to others after quarantine
14 days People who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, have no symptoms, and have not had COVID-19 within the past 3 months. 

 

  • Stay home for 14 days and monitor for symptoms daily.
  • Wear a mask around others in your home when you cannot be 6 feet apart.
  • You do not need to get tested for COVID-19.
Very low risk
10 days 

 

Note: This guidance only applies if it is allowed by your local officials.

People who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, have no symptoms, and have not had COVID-19 within the past 3 months. 

 

  • Stay home for 10 days and monitor for symptoms daily.
  • After 10 days, continue to monitor for symptoms daily for 4 additional days.
  • Wear a mask around others in your home and at work when you cannot be 6 feet apart.
  • You do not need to get tested for COVID-19.
Small increased risk (1%-10%)
7 days 

 

Note: This guidance only applies if it is allowed by your local officials.

People who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, have no symptoms, and have tested negative for COVID-19.
  • Stay home for 7 days and monitor for symptoms daily.
  • After 7 days, continue to monitor for symptoms daily for 7 additional days.
  • Wear a mask around others in your home and at work when you cannot be 6 feet apart.
Moderate increased risk (5%-12%)

Can COVID-19 be prevented or avoided?

Practice social distancing. If you do need to go out in public, wear a mask. This is to protect both you and the people around you from sharing germs. Even if you wear a mask, you should still avoid people who are sick or meeting in large groups. Stay home if you are sick. Cover your cough with a tissue or cough into your upper sleeve or elbow.  Do not cough into your hands.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

COVID-19 treatment

Symptoms of COVID-19 usually go away on their own. If symptoms feel worse than a common cold, contact your doctor. He or she may prescribe pain or fever medication. The FDA is currently advising people to be cautious of websites and stores selling products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. Additionally, do not take any form of chloroquine or other medicines unless they have been prescribed for you by your family doctor and purchased from a legitimate source.

As with a cold or the flu, drink fluids and get plenty of rest. If you are having trouble breathing, seek immediate medical care.

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

Three vaccines for COVID-19 have been authorized for emergency use in the United States from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson (Janssen). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the vaccines, and the CDC has recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people 18 and older.

In clinical trials, all three vaccines proved to be greater than 94% effective in preventing people from getting seriously ill from COVID-19“across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics.” Over 100,000 people were included in the three trials.

Update as of April 15, 2021: The FDA and CDC are pausing use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to review six reported U.S. cases of blood clots from the vaccine. Don’t panic if you received the vaccine. These kind of clots are rare and the vaccine hasn’t been confirmed as the cause. More information will be available soon. Talk to your family doctor if you have questions.

Living with COVID-19

When possible, avoid contact with others when you are sick. It is also possible to spread the virus if you don’t have symptoms. The CDC now recommends that everyone wear a mask in public to prevent spreading the virus. It should cover your mouth and nose. Continue to keep 6 feet between you and others.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What can I do to prevent my friends and family from getting the COVID-19?
  • What over-the-counter medicines work best for my symptoms?
  • Am I at risk of complications because of COVID-19?
  • What should I watch for that could mean there are complications?

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