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Coronavirus FAQ: what is it and how can I protect myself?

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, being informed is an important part of staying safe. Here we answer some of the most common questions about COVID-19.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that affect mammals and birds. In humans, they cause respiratory tract infections and can be mild (such as the common cold) or more serious (such as SARS and MERS). The current outbreak is a new coronavirus strain that has not been seen in humans before, and has been named SARS-CoV-2. It is this new virus that is causing the illness COVID-19.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms have ranged from mild to severe and include:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of taste or smell

Other reported symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Aches and pains
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion and runny nose
  • Diarrhoea

How does the COVID-19 illness spread?

COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets from the nose or mouth when an infected person exhales, coughs or sneezes. These droplets land on nearby surfaces and other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch the virus if they breathe in the droplets from an infected person who coughs - so it is important to stay 2 metres away from a person who is sick, even if they have only mild symptoms.

It can take up to 14 days to become ill once a person has caught COVID-19. The time between catching the virus and showing symptoms is known as the incubation period. Even if a person doesn't show symptoms during this time, they may still be able to pass on the virus to someone else.

Can it be prevented or treated?

At present there is no vaccine or specific medicine to prevent or treat COVID-19. Because it is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective. However, care can be given to relieve symptoms and possible vaccines and drug treatments are being investigated.

How can I protect myself?

Right now, everyone in the UK should be practising social distancing:

  • Stay 1+ metres away from other people.
  • Wear masks in supermarkets and shops, in indoor transport hubs and on public transport
  • Wash your hands with soap and water (or hand sanitiser if soap is not available) for at least 20 seconds when you get home.

Some restrictions have been reinstated in the UK, but different rules apply in different areas.

England

  • People can meet in groups of up to six individuals from different households inside and outside as long as they remain more than one metre apart.
  • Pubs and restaurants are open, but must close at 10pm and are restricted to table service only.
  • People should work from home if they can.
  • Face coverings must be worn in taxis and private hire vehicles, as well as on public transport and in shops and supermarkets.
  • There is no limit on the amount of time people can spend outside.
  • There is no restriction on travel within England.
  • The 'rule of six' now applies to indoor sports teams
  • New restrictions and local lockdowns have now been reintroduced in parts of north England – see gov.uk for detailed information.

Scotland

  • A maximum of six people from two different households can meet up outside (children under 12 are exempt from this). Social distancing must be maintained (2m apart).
  • Meeting inside other people's homes is banned (some exemptions apply).
  • Pubs and restaurants will have a 10pm curfew.
  • Outdoor activities where social distancing can be maintained – such as golf, tennis, bowls and fishing – are allowed. People are also allowed to sit and sunbathe in parks and other outdoor areas.
  • There is no restriction on travel within Scotland.

Wales

  • People are only allowed to mix with other households outdoors – this includes members of their extended household.
  • Pubs, cafes and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 10pm and pubs are restricted to table service only.
  • People should only make essential journeys and should not enter or leave their area without a reasonable excuse.

Northern Ireland

  • Up to 6 people from two households can meet up outdoors while maintaining social distancing (2m metres).
  • Households are banned from mixing indoors.
  • There is no restriction on travel within Northern Ireland.

You should cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the bin. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in your home, wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitiser and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Those with symptoms and those in contact with someone with symptoms should self-isolate and people who are high risk (see below) should be self-isolating for 12 weeks.

Read more: Social distancing and self-isolation explained 

Am I high risk?

There is some evidence that those with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and asthma are more likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19. Those over 70 are also thought to be more vulnerable because their immune systems are weaker.

The Government has also identified certain groups as extremely vulnerable and at highest risk of serious illness. These include:

  • Organ transplant recipients
  • People with specific cancers
  • People undergoing chemotherapy
  • People with blood cancers such as leukaemia or lymphoma
  • People having immunotherapy
  • People with severe lung conditions such as COPD, cystic fibrosis or severe asthma
  • Those taking medications that weaken their immune system
  • Pregnant women with serious heart conditions

(See NHS.uk or gov.uk/coronavirus for the full list)

What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

If you have symptoms of coronavirus (a high temperature and a new continuous cough), it's important that you stay at home. Do not go to your GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital, as you could infect others. Try to avoid other people in your home as much as possible.

Use the NHS online 111 coronavirus service to get help and advice. Only call 111 if you can't get help online.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.

Anna Dunlop is a content writer and editor at Healthspan.