Diagnosis & treatment
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). In 2019, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause of a disease outbreak that originated in China.
The virus is now known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in a growing number of countries, including the U.S. Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are monitoring the situation and posting updates on their websites. WHO declared a global pandemic in March 2020. These groups have also issued recommendations for preventing and treating the illness.
Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 may appear two to 14 days after exposure and can include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Other symptoms can include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
The severity of COVID-19 symptoms can range from very mild to severe. Some people have no symptoms. People who are older or have existing chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes, may be at higher risk of serious illness. This is similar to what is seen with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza.
When to see a doctor
Contact your doctor or clinic right away if you have COVID-19 symptoms, you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or you live in or have traveled from an area with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 as determined by CDC and WHO. Call your doctor ahead to tell him or her about your symptoms and recent travels and possible exposure before you go to your appointment.
Anyone with respiratory symptoms who haven’t been in an area with ongoing community spread can contact his or her doctor or clinic for further recommendations and guidance. Let your doctor know if you have other chronic medical conditions. As the pandemic progresses, it’s important to make sure health care is available for those in greatest need.
It’s unclear exactly how contagious the new coronavirus is. It appears to spread from person to person among those in close contact. It may be spread by respiratory droplets released when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.
It may also be spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes.
Risk factors for COVID-19 appear to include:
- Recent travel from or residence in an area with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 as determined by CDC or WHO
- Close contact with someone who has COVID-19 — such as when a family member or health care worker takes care of an infected person
Complications can include:
- Pneumonia in both lungs
- Organ failure in several organs
Although there is no vaccine available to prevent infection with the new coronavirus, you can take steps to reduce your risk of infection. WHO and CDC recommend following these precautions for avoiding COVID-19:
- Avoid large events and mass gatherings.
- Avoid close contact (about 6 feet) with anyone who is sick or has symptoms.
- Keep a distance between yourself and others if COVID-19 is spreading in your community, especially if you have a higher risk of serious illness.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw away the used tissue.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth if your hands aren’t clean.
- Avoid sharing dishes, glasses, bedding and other household items if you’re sick.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces you often touch on a daily basis.
- Stay home from work, school, and public areas if you’re sick unless you’re going to get medical care. Avoid taking public transportation if you’re sick.
CDC doesn’t recommend that healthy people wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Only wear a mask if a health care provider tells you to do so.
WHO also recommends that you:
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked meat or animal organs.
- Avoid contact with live animals and surfaces they may have touched if you’re visiting live markets in areas that have recently had new coronavirus cases.
If you have a chronic medical condition and may have a higher risk of serious illness, check with your doctor about other ways to protect yourself.
If you’re planning to travel internationally, first check the CDC and WHO websites for updates and advice. Also, look for any health advisories that may be in the place where you plan to travel. You may also want to talk with your doctor if you have health conditions that make you more susceptible to respiratory infections and complications.
Diagnosis & treatment
If you develop symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and you’ve been exposed to the virus, contact your doctor. Tell him or her if you’ve traveled to any areas with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 according to CDC and WHO. Also, let your doctor know if you’ve had close contact with anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Your doctor may determine whether to conduct tests for COVID-19 based on your signs and symptoms. To decide whether to conduct tests for COVID-19, he or she may also consider whether you have had close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or traveled to or lived in any areas with ongoing community spread of COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
To test for COVID-19, your doctor may take samples, including a sample of saliva (sputum), a nasal swab and a throat swab, to send to a lab for testing.
Currently, no antiviral medication is recommended to treat COVID-19. Treatment is directed at relieving symptoms and may include:
- Pain relievers (ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
- Cough syrup or medication
- Fluid intake
If your doctor thinks you can be treated at home, he or she may give you special instructions, such as to isolate yourself as much as possible from family and pets while you’re sick and to stay home for a period of time. If you’re very ill, you may need to be treated in the hospital.
Coping and support
You may feel stress during the COVID-19 outbreak. You may feel fear and anxiety or have trouble sleeping.
Here are some tips that can help you cope with stress during the COVID-19 outbreak:
- Avoid watching or reading news about COVID-19 that makes you feel anxious.
- Limit reading or watching the news about COVID-19 to once or twice a day.
- Get the facts about COVID-19 and share them with others. Check reputable sites such as CDC and WHO for information.
- Take care of yourself — eat healthily, get enough sleep and get regular exercise. Consider deep breathing, stretching and meditation exercises.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Do something you enjoy, such as reading a book, watching a movie or going on a walk.
- Keep connected with family and friends. Share your feelings with them.
- Aim to be positive and optimistic.
- Show appreciation for health care workers who care for those with COVID-19 in your community.
If stress is affecting your daily life after several days, contact your doctor. He or she may suggest that you talk to a mental health professional.
Is worry about COVID-19 disrupting your life?
Preparing for your appointment
You may start by seeing your primary care doctor. Or you may be referred immediately to a doctor trained in treating infectious diseases. If you think you have COVID-19, tell your doctor or clinic before coming in. The doctor and the medical team can then:
- Contact infection prevention and control and public health officials
- Prepare to move you to a room quickly
- Have a mask ready for you
Here’s some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Preparing for an appointment
When you make the appointment, ask if there’s anything you need to do in advance. Make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment
- Your recent travels, including any international travels
- Key personal information, including major stresses, recent life changes and family medical history
- All medications, vitamins or other supplements you take, including the doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you’re given. Avoid bringing more than one or two people.
Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- How likely is it that the new coronavirus is causing my symptoms?
- What are other possible causes for my symptoms?
- What tests do I need?
- What course of action do you recommend?
- Are there restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see a specialist?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Where have you traveled recently?
- Who have you been in close contact with?
- How severe are your symptoms?