What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?
COVID-19 is a disease caused by a type of coronavirus. This illness was first found in 2019 and has since spread worldwide (pandemic). Symptoms can range from mild, such as fever and body aches, to severe, including trouble breathing. COVID-19 can be deadly.
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses. Some types cause the common cold. Others cause more serious illnesses like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
What are the symptoms?
COVID-19 symptoms may include:
- Trouble breathing.
- Chills or repeated shaking with chills.
- Muscle and body aches.
- Sore throat.
- New loss of taste or smell.
In severe cases, COVID-19 can cause pneumonia and make it hard to breathe without help from a machine. It can cause death.
How is it diagnosed?
COVID-19 is diagnosed with a viral test. This may also be called a PCR test or antigen test. It looks for evidence of the virus in your breathing passages or lungs (respiratory system).
The test is most often done on a sample from the nose, throat, or lungs. It's sometimes done on a sample of saliva. One way a sample is collected is by putting a long swab into the back of your nose.
If you have questions about COVID-19 testing, ask your doctor or go to cdc.gov to use the COVID-19 Viral Testing Tool.
How is it treated?
A mild case of COVID-19 can usually be treated at home. Over-the-counter medicine like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help relieve your symptoms.
But even if your symptoms are mild, talk to your doctor right away. Medicines, such as antivirals, can help reduce the risk of serious illness. But you need to take them within a few days after symptoms start. There may be other options if antivirals aren't a good choice for you.
If you do get very sick, you will need to be treated in the hospital. Treatment may include breathing support, such as oxygen therapy or a ventilator. Some people may be placed on their belly to help their oxygen levels. Medicines may be given. For example, you may get a blood thinner to help prevent blood clots.
What happens when you have COVID-19?
COVID-19 usually causes mild illness, similar to the flu. But some people get much sicker. They may develop pneumonia or other problems that need to be treated in the hospital. Some people die.
People with mild illness usually recover in about 2 weeks. But some people have health problems that last much longer. These may include fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, pain in the chest, and depression or anxiety.
The virus can affect the heart, lungs, and brain in some people. Experts are studying COVID-19 to learn more about how it affects long-term health.
How can you care for yourself if you get sick?
- Get extra rest. It can help you feel better.
- Drink plenty of fluids. This helps replace fluids lost from fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
- If your doctor prescribed medicine for COVID-19, take it exactly as directed.
- Ask your doctor if you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. No one younger than 20 should take aspirin. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
- Use petroleum jelly on sore skin. This can help if the skin around your nose and lips becomes sore from rubbing a lot with tissues. If you use oxygen, use a water-based product instead of petroleum jelly.
- Keep track of symptoms such as fever and shortness of breath. This can help you know if you need to call your doctor. It can also help you know when it's safe to be around other people.
- Use a pulse oximeter if your doctor recommends it. This device checks how much oxygen your blood is carrying.
How can you protect yourself and others?
How can you protect yourself and others from COVID-19?
- Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
- Avoid sick people, and stay away from others if you are sick.
- Keep some physical distance between yourself and other people.
- Avoid crowds, especially indoors.
- Wear a mask with the best fit, protection, and comfort for you. A mask can help protect you even when others aren't wearing one.
- Get tested for COVID-19 before you have an indoor visit with people who don't live with you.
- Improve airflow. If you have to spend time indoors with others, open windows and doors. Or you can use a fan to blow air away from people and out a window.
- Choose outdoor visits and activities when possible.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.
Here are some other steps you may need to take.
If you were exposed to someone with COVID-19 AND you don't have symptoms:
- For at least 10 full days, wear a high-quality mask when you are around other people, even those you live with.
- Get tested. Do it right away if you develop symptoms. Wait at least 5 days after you were exposed if you don't have symptoms.
- If your test is positive, call your doctor right away. The doctor may have you take a medicine to keep you from getting seriously ill. Treatment works best when started early. And isolate right away.
- Take extra care if you have to be around other people who are at high risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Keep some extra space between yourself and others, for example. And don't travel.
- Watch for symptoms.
If you are sick or test positive for COVID-19:
- Talk to your doctor as soon as you can. Your doctor may have you take medicine to help prevent serious illness.
- Get a COVID-19 test unless you have already been tested. You may need to be tested more than once.
- Stay home and separate yourself from others, including those you live with. Limit contact with people in your home. If possible, stay in a separate bedroom and use a separate bathroom. For at least 10 full days, anytime you're around other people, you and they should wear a high-quality mask. Children younger than 2 years old don't need to wear a mask.
Self-isolate until it's safe to be around others again. (Important: Day 0 is the day your symptoms started or the day you tested positive. Day 1 is the day after your symptoms first started or your test was positive.)
- If you tested positive but had no symptoms, it's safe to end isolation at the end of Day 5. But if you start to have symptoms, follow the recommendations below and count your first day of symptoms as Day 0.
- If you have symptoms, when you can end isolation depends on how sick you were and your overall health. No matter what, you need to wait until your symptoms are getting better and you haven't had a fever for 24 hours while not taking medicines to lower the fever. Here's how long to isolate, based on your symptoms:
- If you were only a little sick: (This means you might have felt really bad but had no shortness of breath and never needed to be in the hospital.) You can end isolation at the end of Day 5.
- If you were more sick: (You had some shortness of breath or some trouble breathing but never needed to be in the hospital.) You can end isolation at the end of Day 10.
- If you were very sick and needed to be in the hospital, or if you have a weakened immune system: You can end isolation at the end of Day 10 or later. Talk to your doctor to find out when it's safe to end isolation. You may need a viral test.
- After you end isolation, if your symptoms come back or get worse: Restart your isolation at Day 0. Do this even if it happens after you took medicine for COVID.
- Avoid travel and stay away from people at high risk for serious disease for at least 10 days.
Check the CDC website at cdc.gov for the most current information on how to protect yourself.
- Antibody Test for COVID-19
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker
- COVID-19: Advice if You're Planning a Pregnancy, Pregnant, Recently Pregnant, or Breastfeeding
- COVID-19: Caring for Someone Who Is Sick
- COVID-19: Pushing Back Against Stigma
- Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)
- Quick Tips: 10 Things to Do if You Have COVID-19
- Quick Tips: 9 Things to Do if You've Been Exposed to COVID-19
- Travel Health
- Viral Test for COVID-19
Current as of: January 28, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Heather Quinn MD - Family Medicine
Lesley Ryan MD - Family Medicine