As the novel (new) coronavirus spreads to more cities, so does plenty of misinformation about it. Luckily, it’s not as scary as you might have heard. In fact, of the 44,672 novel coronavirus cases that were confirmed in China by February 11, more than 36,000 (81 percent) of those cases were mild, according to a recent study published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, which is the largest conducted to date on novel coronavirus, specifically defined “mild” as cases that didn’t involve pneumonia or involved only mild pneumonia.
Still, it’s definitely something to pay attention to and understand, and arming yourself with knowledge about the virus and your actual risk factors for contracting it can help ease any anxiety around it—and ensure you’re better prepared if it does spread to your area.
First, it’s helpful to understand where and how novel coronavirus started. Here’s what you need to know.
Turns out, coronavirus isn’t a brand-new virus. Other strains of the coronavirus have caused outbreaks such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and middle east respiratory syndrome (MERS), according to the CDC. This current strain, referred to as COVID-19, first popped up on global radar in December 2019, after it was first detected in Wuhan City, in the Hubei province of China. Initially, the virus existed in animals but was transmitted to humans.
“Open markets, especially common in Asia and Morocco, are believed to be part of the transmission, where livestock is close to food and people with that kind of market setup,” says Eudene Harry, MD, an emergency medicine physician in Orlando, Florida. From there, the virus has spread from person-to-person contact and airborne particles.
Doctors and researchers around the world are trying to sort out exactly how the virus has spread to certain areas, and so quickly. It started out as strictly travel-related, meaning people who had recently been to the Wuhan area in China were becoming infected. But the world is so interconnected, Dr. Harry notes; so with so much travel happening, it can be difficult to trace some of the cases. In Italy, which currently has thousands of cases of the virus (second only to China), it’s plausible that with international travel, someone transmitted the virus without knowing they had it, she explains.
That’s the definition of “community spread,” as the CDC states: People are getting infected with the virus in their communities without having a direct link back to a person or place (China, or Italy, for example). In Washington state, there have been a number of cases and some deaths from coronavirus, but there’s no connection to any other cases, it appears at this point. “Based on genetic testing of the virus in Washington, it’s been around a little longer than they thought in that area,” says Dr. Harry. “Genetically, it’s similar to the virus that originated in China,” she adds, so it’s a matter of sorting out where exactly that contact came from, which may take time.
COVID-19 mostly affects the upper respiratory system, but symptoms present differently depending on the severity of the case, Dr. Harry explains. “Some people have very mild symptoms, similar to cold symptoms, like a runny nose,” she says.
But some cases of coronavirus are more serious than a common cold. The symptoms might be similar to the flu, in terms of high fever, aches and pains, and cough. In some cases, people are developing pneumonia with the virus, though the most severe symptoms are impacting people over 50 who have pre-existing respiratory conditions, meaning their immune system is compromised, notes Dr. Harry.
Because symptoms can be similar to other common respiratory infections including the flu and common cold, the only way to know for sure that it’s novel coronavirus is to get tested, Dr. Harry says. It’s important to seek out testing, especially if you’ve been traveling to an area with many of these coronavirus cases or have been in contact with someone who has, or if you have a bad cough or shortness of breath that isn’t getting better.
The main way the virus is spread is through respiratory droplets (aka coughs and sneezes), which can travel to other people through the air or through your hands, hence the worldwide plea for people to wash their hands more frequently, as well as take these other precautions.
Awareness about your health is important, but panicking about potentially getting sick won’t do you any good. “If anything, that compromises your immune system because you’re adding excess stress,” Dr. Harry says. Outside of washing your hands, the most important thing you can do right now is keep up your typical health habits to boost immunity, like eating a nutrient-rich diet with plenty of protein and antioxidants, having a healthy sleep routine, and exercising regularly.
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