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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?

There are currently two vaccine approved for use against COVID-19 in the UK - the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Both are being rolled out around the country. Since COVID-19 is a virus, antibiotics are ineffective. However, the steroid dexamethasone and Remdesivir, an antiviral drug initially used for ebola, are both approved to treat COVID-19. Antibody therapies are also being trialled.

How can I protect myself?

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

  • Stay 2 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.

England, Scotland and Wales

  • England, Scotland and Wales are now in lockdown.
  • People must not leave their home except for specific purposes, which include work or volunteering (if this can't be done from home), shopping for essentials, such as food or medicine, for exercise (once a day), for education or childcare purposes or to avoid injury, illness or risk of harm (including domestic abuse). See gov.uk for full details.
  • People can exercise or meet in a public, outdoors space, only with people they live with, their support bubble (or as part of a childcare bubble), or, if living alone, with one other person. People should only exercise once a day, and not leave their local area.
  • Schools, colleges and universities are closed, however, primary and secondary schools and colleges will stay open for vulnerable children and children of key workers.
  • Face coverings must be worn in taxis and private hire vehicles, as well as on public transport and in shops and supermarkets. 

Northern Ireland

  • The above rules apply, however in Northern Ireland, people can form a bubble with one other household and meet indoors. Additionally, up to six people from no more than two households can meet up outdoors in a private garden, but social distancing should be maintained. See nidirect.gov.uk for more details.

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.