Coronavirus: everything you need to know

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 06 Apr 2020

Contents
virus

What is coronavirus?

A coronavirus is a virus which can affect animals and humans.

It's thought that this strain (COVID-19) spreads in a similar way to other viruses which are passed on through coughing or sneezing, as it's carried in droplets.

As with other coronaviruses, it's likely that COVID-19 can also be picked up from surfaces, but we do not know how long it survives outside the body. This is thought to be up to 72 hours, depending on the surface it's on.

How can I protect myself and others?

Based on the World Health Organization’s declaration that this is a public health emergency of international concern and is now a pandemic (which means it’s spread across a significant proportion of the world), the UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public to high.

We are in what is called a ‘delay phase’ where the strategy aims to delay the impact of the virus and slow its spread so that the NHS can cope with the numbers of sick people it needs to treat to save more lives in the long run. It is vital that you follow the government’s advice on social distancing and self-isolation when necessary.

To avoid infection you should:

  • avoid contact with people who have or may have coronavirus
  • make sure you wash your hands with soap and water for 20 to 30 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use alcohol-based hand rub instead
  • use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and then dispose of it
  • try not to touch your face until or unless you’ve washed your hands first
  • practise ‘social distancing’: this means that you should avoid leaving your home unless absolutely necessary. If you do need to go out (to get supplies, go to the pharmacy, or go to work), you must try to keep at least 2 metres away from anyone else, wherever you are. Congregating in crowds or groups is a major way that this virus is being spread

What is 'social distancing'?

Social distancing is the term used to describe the distancing of people from one another. In short, it means you should try to stay at least 2 metres away from everyone else, apart from those you live with unless they're in an at-risk group (see below). If you live with anyone from an 'at-risk' group, you should try to keep 2 metres away from them, even at home. Do not share things like cutlery or mugs, and try to avoid physical contact as much as possible, especially if you're going out to work or to the shops where there's the potential of picking up the virus.

The government is now requiring people to stay at home, except in these circumstances:

  • To shop for essential items
  • To fulfil any medical needs
  • To go to work where you're unable to work from home and your work is absolutely necessary
  • To exercise once a day

If you are leaving your home, you need to stay 2 metres away from anyone else. Any gatherings of more than two people, unless from the same household, will be dispersed.

Which people are in the 'at-risk' group?

Those who are classified as 'at-risk' have been told to practice social distancing more strictly and to avoid going out at all. This includes:

  • Everyone over 70
  • Anyone under 70 who would normally be invited for an annual flu jab because of their underlying health condition
  • All pregnant women

Getting help if you’re extremely vulnerable

If you have a medical condition which makes you extremely vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19), you can register and inform the appropriate agencies whether or not you need support. This is where you should start: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

You may have received a letter from the NHS telling you that you’re clinically extremely vulnerable, or been contacted by your GP or hospital clinician. If this has not happened, contact your GP after you register with this service.

It may take time for any support offered through this service to arrive. Wherever possible, you should continue to rely on friends, family and any wider support to help you meet your needs.

Should I wear a face mask?

You may have noticed some people wearing face masks or seen images of people wearing them on TV and in the newspapers, but there's very little evidence that most masks reduce the spread of the virus to the general public.

This is because they're often not used correctly, and they lead to a false sense of security that can stop you from taking more important precautions, like regular handwashing.

The virus can also get around them, and tiny viral particles may be able to pass through the mask's fibres.

Masks are most important for healthcare professionals and those who already have the disease, to lower the chances of them passing it on to others.

Stockpiling masks by those that do not need them is leading to a world shortage which will disadvantage the people who need help most.

Message our doctors about coronavirus

We do not treat coronavirus but we're on hand to give you the information that you need, and tell you where to get further advice and help.

You can message our doctors for free through your secure online account at any time. And if you do not have an account, registering is quick and free.

Our doctors will usually be able to get back to you within 5 working hours, but you'll certainly hear from us within 24 hours of sending us a message.

Questions about coronavirus? Get free advice from our doctors
Message our doctors

Coronavirus: the most common questions answered

Our doctor Dr Simran Deo answers our patients' most frequently asked questions about coronavirus.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Many people may be asymptomatic carriers, i.e. they will be carrying the virus without developing any symptoms. If you do get infected and develop symptoms, the main symptoms of coronavirus are a fever and a continuous dry cough, which can occasionally lead to shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Some people might develop more common 'cold' symptoms too.

Other symptoms can include:

  • muscle aches
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of sense of smell and/or taste
  • tiredness and fatigue

What should I do if I have symptoms?

The most current advice is to self-isolate for 7 days from when you first develop symptoms that could be due to this strain of coronavirus, but if someone else who lives with you develops symptoms, everyone in that household should self-isolate for 14 days in total.

If you think you have coronavirus, the advice is to use the NHS 111 online assessment, rather than go to your local GP or A&E department. We have been advised to only use the NHS when absolutely necessary.

Most people with coronavirus (about 80%) will not need hospital treatment, but you may be asked to self-isolate to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Some people may be at risk of developing more severe illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis if they become infected. This includes the elderly, people with pre-existing health conditions, and people on immunosuppressants or with weakened immune systems. About 5% of those infected might need extra respiratory support in a specialist unit. The death rate seems to be around 1%, though figures are hard to come by so early on in this pandemic.

Call NHS 111 if you’re concerned that you may be becoming seriously ill and need additional medical support.

Tissue

How is coronavirus spread?

Experts think that, like colds and flu, coronavirus spreads via the droplets produced by coughing and sneezing.

As with other coronaviruses, it's likely that COVID-19 can also be picked up from surfaces, but we do not know how long it survives outside the body.

More research is being done to see if there are other ways of transmitting the virus.

How can I stay safe on public transport?

You should try to avoid using public transport unless absolutely necessary, especially if you are in an at-risk group (which now includes pregnant women and those over 70 years of age), since the advice is now to try to avoid social contact as much as possible. Public transport should only be used by ‘key workers’ - those people who absolutely need to go to their place of work (eg NHS staff, cashiers).

Zava research has found that the surfaces and handrails on public transport carry lots of other bacteria and viruses which can cause anything from flu to gastrointestinal infections. To help stay safe on public transport, you should:

  • wash your hands with soap and warm water after you've used public transport. Many bacteria and viruses can survive on surfaces for several hours
  • carry some alcohol hand gel to use after your journey
  • during your journey, try not to touch your face
  • cover your mouth and nose with a tissue if you cough or sneeze
  • save your snacks and meals for after the journey, and wash your hands before you eat
virus

Should I still travel abroad?

The best thing to do if you’re planning to travel abroad is to check the advice on Gov.uk.

If you’re travelling by public transport to get to your destination, read our advice above on staying safe on public transport.

Pregnancy and COVID-19

Following the new measures outlined by the government on 16 March, particularly those suggesting that pregnant women reduce social contact, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have issued a joint statement reassuring women who are pregnant:

“The three Royal Colleges, who between them care for and support women and their babies throughout pregnancy, birth and childhood, reiterate that there is currently no new evidence to suggest that pregnant women are at greater risk from coronavirus (COVID-19) than other healthy individuals, or that they can pass the infection to their baby while pregnant.” The government’s announcement is purely a precautionary measure, to reduce the theoretical risk to the baby’s growth and a risk of preterm birth should the mother become unwell.

However, following this advice, reports have come through suggesting that there may have been a small number of cases where the virus seems to have been passed on from the mother to the baby before birth in China. All of these children recovered, and only a few showed symptoms of infection. Following this, pregnant women should try to stay at home as per government advice, and if any symptoms of possible COVID-19 develop, you should speak to your antenatal team for advice.

COVID-19 testing

There’s been a lot of discussion about who should be tested for the virus and why it’s not being done more widely. This comes down to a capacity problem. The UK is already ahead of many countries in terms of the number of people tested and will be ramping this up in the days and weeks ahead. The test we have at the moment is a PCR DNA test - labs look for signs of the virus itself in respiratory tract fluids. Blood testing is in development which will detect antibodies that are produced as a result of contact with the virus. This can tell us whether someone is actively or was recently infected and whether they were infected in the past and are now immune.

At present, front-line healthcare workers and patients who are unwell (mainly in hospital) are being prioritised for testing. This will likely change in the near future when more test kits become available.

Asthma and other medical conditions and COVID-19

Many people have been messaging our doctors to ask whether they might be at increased risk of infection or severe illness due to a long-term medical condition. The simple answer is that each case is different. Most asthmatics will not be more susceptible to contracting the virus, but if they do get ill, it might worsen their asthma - just like any cold or flu could do. That’s why it’s always essential to keep up to date with asthma reviews and have an asthma action plan ready which will tell you how to step up treatment in the event of contracting a respiratory infection. Asthma UK has a support page for asthmatics who are worried about coronavirus.

Other medical conditions, like heart disease or diabetes, might make you have a more severe reaction if you get the virus. Still, again it varies between individuals and the severity of your condition. Those taking regular high dose steroids or other medicines that might reduce your immune system’s response to infection are more at risk of contracting the virus. If you’re one of these people, you need to be even more careful about social distancing and follow the advice on how to minimise the risk of infection strictly.

If you have any questions about anything on this page, please feel free to message our doctors through your account.

Ibuprofen and COVID-19

There have been some studies carried out in recent years which seem to suggest that taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen might dampen your body’s immune response to a respiratory infection, and so lead to more severe illness. There is no conclusive data regarding ibuprofen and COVID-19, and rumours of people becoming severely unwell from taking ibuprofen appear to be false. That said, the advice from the medical profession is to try not to take anti-inflammatories unless you absolutely have to. If you have a fever or pain that needs to be treated with something, use paracetamol instead. If you are on an anti-inflammatory for another condition (like rheumatoid arthritis), you should carry on as normal. If you become ill with a respiratory infection, you should speak to your doctor about what to do.

Blood pressure and heart tablets, and COVID-19

The Renal Association UK published this statement on some BP and heart tablets on 15 March 2020:

“Recent media reports that ACE Inhibitor drugs (‘pril’ drugs) and Angiotensin receptor blockers (‘sartan’ drugs) may increase the risk of death from novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection will provoke anxiety for many people with kidney disease and leave them uncertain about the best action to take.

Patients are prescribed these medications for several reasons and for some people, particularly those with heart failure, stopping the drugs suddenly can lead them to become unwell. This can cause people to become more breathless and may create uncertainty about whether symptoms are due to infection (such as COVID-19), or to underlying health problems.

The evidence that these medications increase the risk of death is unconvincing: the reports may simply reflect the fact that people taking the drugs are more likely to have conditions that place them at high risk of severe COVID-19 infection.

We, therefore, advise people taking these medications to continue to take them. If they become unwell such that they need to seek medical help, the doctor may recommend stopping the drugs depending on their clinical condition.

We are continuing to review the evidence as it comes in and will update this advice as needed.”

Smoking and COVID-19

It’s widely known that smoking can reduce immunity to a small degree, and because of the effect it has on the lungs, it can make you more susceptible to catching viruses. If you smoke, your infection might last longer than it would otherwise, and be more severe. Now might be the perfect time for you to stop. Take a look at our stop smoking page to get some more advice and information.

Common myths and misconceptions

There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about how the virus spreads and how to protect yourself against it.

Coronavirus is new, so we do not exactly know how it behaves, but here are some of the common questions that our doctors are being asked:

Should I wear a mask in public?

Even though some people have started wearing face masks, and you often see images of people wearing them on TV and in the newspapers, there's not enough evidence yet that face masks help stop the spread of the virus. The WHO and the UK government’s position on this has not changed.

Facemask

Should I stay off work?

Most employers are asking their employees to work from home

The latest advice is to reduce non-essential contact as much as possible. If you can work from home, please do so. Those who have been deemed a high risk of complications if they contract the virus, due to long term medical problems, should be especially careful and have a frank conversation with their employer to discuss working conditions.

The way you live and work right now should feel different to normal. You will be asked to self-isolate if you have travelled to a high-risk area in the last 14 days, have symptoms like a cough, shortness of breath or a high temperature, or if you've been in close contact with someone who definitely has coronavirus.

This advice may keep changing every few days based on developing scientific data and government policy.

If you think you may have contracted coronavirus and you're not sure what to do, call NHS 111 first – do not go to your GP surgery or A&E department.

Can unborn babies get the virus?

It's not yet clear whether it can be passed from a mother to an unborn child, though initial research suggests that the virus cannot be contracted in the womb, though this advice might change with new evolving evidence.

In cases where young babies have been infected, it's more likely that the condition is picked up after birth from close contact with someone that has the virus.

If you're pregnant and you've been in close contact with someone who definitely has coronavirus, or you've recently returned from a high-risk area, call your GP or midwife for advice.

The current advice for pregnant women who have any symptoms which might be attributed to COVID-19 is to self-isolate like everyone else. And, although you're likely to react to the virus in the same way, there's currently no evidence that suggests any harm will pass on to your unborn child.

Can the virus be transferred through sex?

There's no evidence that bodily fluids like sperm and vaginal secretion can pass on coronavirus.

The official guidance issued by the NHS and other health bodies tells us to avoid contact with those who have been infected.

Epidemiologists (who study patterns in diseases) are encouraging people to limit or avoid physical contact while the ways that coronavirus is spread are identified.

So having sex with someone who has coronavirus – or who is under quarantine – is certainly not advised.

condoms

Can I get the virus from my pets?

There are reports of a very small number of animals having been infected by humans (notably a tiger at a zoo in the USA, a cat in Belgium and a couple of dogs in Hong Kong). Coronavirus seems to be passed on to cats more easily than dogs in laboratory experiments that have taken place. Still, there’s no evidence that the virus can be passed back to humans as they do not secrete enough of the virus to be able to pass it to us. So the current advice is that we are safe to interact with our pets as usual.

Are you immune once you've had it?

There have been reports in the media about people contracting the virus more than once. This has been shown to be possible, but rare. Most people seem to develop robust immunity which would last them long enough to protect against this outbreak. A very small percentage of those infected may not be able to put up as much of an immune response and therefore might catch it a second time. This would be more likely in those with an underlying immune condition.

Experts are busy gathering information from those who have become infected to see how well their immune systems react and how long they'll remain immune.

We do know that when you catch a virus, your body learns how to fight it off. Even after you've fully recovered, your body is left with the ability to battle a virus and avoid developing symptoms again.

Our bodies can forget over time how to do this and immunity can wear off after initial infection.

I've had the flu jab, am I protected?

Unfortunately not. Coronavirus is new, so it needs its own vaccine. Pneumonia and flu vaccines will not provide any protection against the coronavirus, but it's still a good idea to get vaccinated against these infections.

Needles

When will we have a cure?

There is currently no vaccine or cure for the coronavirus, though there are treatments to help relieve the symptoms while you fight off the infection.

Researchers are currently working to develop a vaccine, although that may not be ready for some months. They're also testing whether we could treat coronavirus with drugs currently used to treat other conditions, and some of the results are looking promising. We may soon know which drugs might help those who are most severely ill with COVID-19.

Pneumonia and flu vaccines will not provide any protection against the disease.

In the press

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Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 06 Apr 2020



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