COVID-19: What Is It, How is It Spread, and What are the Symptoms?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses associated with a wide variety of infections, from the common cold to serious infections including SARS and MERS. SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection, emerged in China in late 2019 as a novel form of the Coronavirus. It is unclear exactly where the virus originated, but it is quite likely that there was viral mutation in animal hosts that allowed the virus to infect humans, and those who had contact with these animals developed the first cases.

How Is It Spread?

COVID-19 appears to spread by primarily by respiratory droplets, such as when a person coughs or sneezes. Respiratory droplets may then enter the eyes, mouth, or nose of another person, or may possibly be aerosolized and linger in the air,  Researchers still aren't sure how contagious COVID-19 is compared to other viruses, but it appears to spread more rapidly than the flu. Transmission seems most likely to be when people are standing within about 6 feet of each other and is most likely if there is prolonged contact. The virus may also be spread by fomites, that is, by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.  There is also preliminary research out of Wuhan, China about potential fecal-oral transmission.

Community spread, which is when people have been infected with the virus in a specific geographic area even though they have no idea how or where they became infected, is possible – meaning you can be exposed without realizing it at the time, and it is possible that people without symptoms can spread it – however, most spread has been from symptomatic individuals.

What are the Symptoms and How Do They Differ from Flu?

While they are different viruses, COVID-19 and the flu share such similar symptoms that it may be hard to distinguish which you have – and without testing, even a doctor might not be able to tell. Both can cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue and in severe cases, pneumonia.

If you do contract it, the symptoms of COVID-19 will most likely include:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath

Other symptoms can include fatigue, sputum production, muscle or joint aches and pains, sore throat, and headache. Nausea or vomiting has been reported in a small percentage of patients (5%).

According to two papers published in the journal Gastroenterology, patients with COVID-19 may also experience gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal discomfort prior to the common respiratory symptoms.

These symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure, and not all symptoms are always present. Both the flu and the common cold can include fever and cough; the flu is notorious for higher fever, and often intense aches and pains. Symptoms of COVID-19 are mild in about 85% of people who contract it. Severe cases and serious complications are more common in those considered high risk; in some cases it may lead to pneumonia, respiratory complications, and even death. Who is considered high risk? According to the CDC, this includes older adults (65+) and those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or lung conditions. Being a smoker may also increase your COVID-19 risk.

Given that we’re in cold and flu season, it’s very possible to contract a mild form of COVID-19 and not even realize you have it. In fact, many people will contract the virus and not develop symptoms at all, or you might have symptoms and just assume you have one of the common seasonal illnesses – though I think everyone who coughs, sneezes, or has a fever right now is experiencing some level of anxiety, at least initially.

Take heart. While I know this is frightening for us all, most people who develop COVID-19 will get through it without complications, and there's a tremendous amount you can do to protect your health and prevent illness.

To read all of the articles in my COVID-19 series, click here

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Hi Dr Romm, Thank you for your reassuring message and factual information.

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cristine clay

Dr. Romm, I am a relatively healthy 64 year old retired nurse living is WI. I am scheduled to go to Holland and Belgium on a biking/barge 15 day vacation 4/3-4/18. There will be about 25 people living/working on the barge and we will bike about 30 miles/day. Do you feel it is safe to take this kind of trip during thie outbreak of COVID 19? Cris

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    Aviva Romm

    Well that sounds amazing! I'm recommending staying close to home if at all possible both to avoid unnecessary exposure - but to also avoid getting stuck behind a travel ban or a lockdown. But... gatherings of that size right now and close quarters do raise my alarm bells a bit, especially if everyone had to travel to get there.

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Thank you so much for the unbiased Information, I am feeling overwhelmed with the fear based reporting and really appreciate getting facts, with kindness and grace as you deliver. I don’t know you, but have been following you for many many years And have developed a deep trust of you. You are a Godsend to many, a voice of calm in the storm...and I believe spiritually working for the greater good,

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Lori A Feig-Sandoval

Thank you Aviva. I've been trusting and appreciating you for more than 25 years; I think that now more than ever, I'm grateful for your calm and empathy as much as for your expertise and professionalism. Thanks so much for this information.