Since Covid-19 emerged at the beginning of this year in China it has caused widespread devastation globally – infecting more than 1,273,000 people and killing 69,400.
There are cases in nearly every country in the world and even the most sophisticated health systems in Europe and the United States are struggling to contain it.
There have now been 47,806 confirmed cases in the UK, although many more people are thought to be infected, and 4,934 patients have died. More than 195,000 people have now been tested in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But there is also a lot that individuals can do to stop themselves picking up and spreading this disease. This practical guide will help you keep yourself and your family safe and tell you everything you need to know about this global pandemic.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in animals. Seven, including the new virus, have made the jump to humans, but most just cause common cold-like symptoms.
Only two other coronaviruses – Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) – have been deadly but did not spread on the same scale as Covid-19. They have killed more than 1,500 people between them since 2002.
So far, around 15 to 20 per cent of Covid-19 cases have been classed as “severe” and the current death rate varies between 0.7 per cent and 3.4 per cent depending on the location and, crucially, access to good hospital care.
Scientists in China believe that Covid-19 has mutated into two strains, one more aggressive than the other, which could make developing a vaccine more complicated.
What are the mild symptoms of the coronavirus?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the main symptoms of the coronavirus usually include:
- A dry cough
- A temperature
- Shortness of breath (in more severe cases)
Some patients may have “aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea”, the WHO adds. “These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don’t feel unwell”.
The chart below identifies some of the most commonly reported symptoms.
Read more: what it’s like to have mild coronavirus symptoms
Senior medics have also demanded that the official list of coronavirus symptoms should be expanded to include loss of smell and taste.
How long do coronavirus symptoms last?
Because Covid-19 is so new there is a good deal of uncertainty around this. One detailed medical report of a waitress on the Diamond Princess cruise ship – a disease hotspot – who had a mild form of the disease showed that she displayed symptoms for 10 days. And a study of nine German patients who were also only mildly affected showed that they displayed symptoms for between eight and 11 days.
However, anecdotal reports on social media show that people can feel extreme fatigue for several days after more obvious symptoms such as cough and fever have subsided.
People with more severe forms of the disease will take longer to recover – a study of 138 patients who were hospitalised in China showed that some patients were in hospital for up to two weeks, although the average stay was 10 days.
What is the incubation period?
Symptoms are thought to appear between two and 10 days after contracting the virus, but it may be up to 24 days.
Most people (about 80 per cent) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. However, around one out of every six people (16 per cent) becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.
Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems, lung complaints or diabetes are more likely to develop serious illness.
When should I seek medical help?
If you have difficulty breathing – for example, you are breathing hard and fast, then you should seek medical help. But do not go to a GP – call NHS 111. The NHS 111 website has a symptom checker and specific advice about what you should do in the event that you need to seek medical help.
If you have a fever and a cough – the main early symptoms of coronavirus – the government now advises that you self-isolate for seven days. However, if you live with others you and the people you live with will have to self isolate for 14 days. This will help protect others.
If you live alone, ask neighbours, friends and family to help you to get the things you need.
You do not need to call NHS 111 to go into self-isolation. But if your symptoms worsen during home isolation or are no better after seven days contact the NHS 111 online. If you have no internet access, you should call NHS 111.
For a medical emergency dial 999.
How to ‘self isolate’ if you think you might have coronavirus
If you think you may have the virus, you should try to isolate or quarantine yourself.
This means you should:
- Stay at home
- Do not go to work and other public areas
- Do not use public transport and taxis
- Get friends and family to deliver food, medicines etc. rather than going to the shops
How is the coronavirus spread and how can I protect myself?
The most important advice to follow is to stay at home and keep washing your hands.
Like cold and flu bugs, the new virus is spread via droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. The droplets travel for up to three metres, landing on surfaces which are then touched by others and spread further.
People catch the virus when their infected hands touch the mouth, nose or eyes.
It follows that the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to keep your hands clean by washing them frequently with soap and water or a hand sanitising gel.
Also try to avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands – something we all do unconsciously on average about 15 times an hour.
Other tips include:
- Carry a hand sanitiser with you at all time to make frequent cleaning of your hands easy
- Always wash your hands before you eat or touch your face
- Be especially careful about touching things and then touching your face
- Sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow to prevent your hands being contaminated
- Carry disposable tissues with you, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and dispose of the tissue carefully (catch it, bin it, kill it)
- If you do have to go to work remember social distancing rules and keep away from people
- Wash your hands when you get in after you have been out
- Regularly clean not only your hands but also commonly used surfaces and devices you touch or handle
Is it just droplets from the nose and mouth that spread the new virus?
Probably not, but they are by far the most common risk.
The NHS and WHO is advising doctors that the virus is also likely to be contained in other bodily secretions including blood, faeces and urine.
Here again, hand and surface hygiene is the key.
How can I protect my family, especially children?
Children are a major vector for the spread of droplet-based viruses because they interact physically so much with each other and are not the best at keeping themselves clean.
The virus appears to impact older people more commonly but children can be infected and they can get severe illness, the government warns.
However, you can greatly lower the risk that children pose of spreading or catching viruses by:
Explaining to them how germs spread and the importance of good hand and face hygiene
Ensuring that they stick to the rules on social distancing so no meeting up with friends however bored they are getting
Keeping household surfaces clean, especially kitchens, bathrooms, door handles and light switches
Using clean or disposable cloths to wipe surfaces so you don’t transfer germs from one surface to another
Giving everyone their own towel and making sure they know not to share toothbrushes etc
Keep your home dry and airy (bugs thrive in musty environments)
The Government is advising that people stay at home and practise social distancing. Stay at least three metres away from other people.
Do not go to work unless it’s essential.
Read more: What the lockdown plans mean for you
What about face masks – do they work?
Paper face masks are not recommended by Public Health England, the NHS or other major health authorities for ordinary citizens.
However, the United States authorities, which traditionally have always shared the UK view, have said that people should wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of the disease.
In Asia face masks have long been a common sight and some experts believe that in countries such as South Korea and Singapore their ubiquity may have helped stem the epidemic – alongside widespread testing and other public health measures.
In the UK public health experts caution against wearing them because they offer the wearer little protection – they are often ill fitting, become moist and provide the perfect environment for germs to thrive.
However, we may have been approaching the face mask question from the wrong angle – they may not protect the wearer, but they can stop the wearer transmitting the disease to others.
Read more on face masks here.
Are some groups of people more at risk than others?
Data from China suggests that people of all ages are at risk of contracting the virus, although older people are more likely to develop serious illness.
People with a reduced chance of surviving pneumonia include:
Of the first 425 confirmed deaths across mainland China, 80 per cent were in people over the age of 60, and 75 per cent had some form of underlying disease.
However, young people are not “invincible” as the WHO has warned and they must follow official advice.
Is there a vaccine for coronavirus?
There is currently no vaccine, but scientists around the world are racing to produce one thanks to China’s prompt sharing of the virus’s genetic code.
However, any potential vaccine will not be available for up to a year and would be most likely to be given to health workers most at risk of contracting the virus first. In addition, researchers in China believe that the virus may have mutated into two strains, one of which is highly aggressive, making a search for a vaccine more difficult.
For now, it is a case of containment and increasing hospital capacity to treat patients. The UK government’s conornavirus action plan aims to delay and flatten the epidemic curve of the disease to avoid the NHS from becoming overwhelmed as happened in Wuhan.
Capacity to treat patients who require hospital care is already becoming a major challenge for the NHS – this is what has prompted the government lockdown. Do your bit to help slow down the outbreak by following the advice above.
What is the difference between a coronavirus and a flu virus?
Coronaviruses and flu viruses might cause similar symptoms but genetically they are very different. Coronaviruses begin in animals so humans have no natural immunity.
“Flu viruses incubate very rapidly – you tend to get symptoms two to three days after being infected, but coronaviruses take much longer,” says Professor Neil Ferguson, a disease outbreak scientist at Imperial College London.
“[With the] flu virus you become immune, but there are lots of different viruses circulating. Coronaviruses don’t evolve in the same way as flu, with lots of different strains, but equally our body doesn’t generate very good immunity.”
What is a hantavirus?
A man in China died from a hantavirus in March – a disease that is spread by rats and other rodents. There are different types of hantavirus depending where in the world you live and the latest data from the European Centres for Disease Control show that there were around 4,000 cases in Europe in 2017, with around a 0.5 per cent death rate.
The disease is spread via infected rodent urine, droppings, or saliva and does not spread from person to person. Farm and forestry workers are most at risk and 70 per cent of the cases in Europe in 2017 occurred in Germany and France.