What is COVID-19?

Understanding the basics

Reviewed by: Amy Young, MD, Chief Clinical Officer of UT Health Austin
Written by: Ashley Lawrence

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that typically cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses similar to the common cold and flu. COVID-19 is a newly discovered coronavirus found in humans that can spread from person to person. The first outbreak was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and has since made its way to the United States.

What are the symptoms?

People diagnosed with COVID-19 have had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms that often include, but are not limited to:

  • Fever (100°F)
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Shortness of breath

Not everyone with COVID-19 experiences symptoms. For those who do, symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days after exposure to COVID-19.

How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is community spread, meaning individuals have contracted the virus without traveling to an infected part of the country. This leads health experts to believe it is spread through:

  • Respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • People in close contact with one another (within a six-foot radius)
  • Touching a surface or object that has been infected with the virus and then touching your own face, particularly your mouth, nose, or eyes

You can protect others by practicing respiratory etiquette (e.g., coughing into a flexed elbow), and you can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, resisting the urge to touch your face, avoiding close contact with people who are unwell, and routinely cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces that are frequently touched.

Who is at high-risk?

While most people infected with COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and will recover without needing special treatment, people who are immunocompromised are more likely to develop serious illness. This includes people over the age of 60 or with underlying medical problems, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic respiratory disease
  • Cancer

If you are at high-risk, stay home as much as possible and watch for signs and symptoms.

What can I do to keep myself, my family, and friends safe?

Stay up to date on the latest information pertaining to COVID-19 by tuning into your national and local public health authority. You can reduce your chances of becoming infected or spreading COVID-19 by:

  • Staying home
  • Avoiding gatherings with large numbers of people (more than 10)
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Practicing good hand hygiene, regularly and thoroughly cleaning your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or by washing them with soap and water
  • Practicing coughing and sneezing etiquette, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throwing the tissue in the trash
  • Not touching your face, particularly your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Maintaining a six-foot distance between yourself and others
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces, using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe
  • Stockpiling a few extra months’ worth of your prescription medications, if possible

If you have recently visited (in the past 14 days) areas where COVID-19 is spreading, be sure to self-monitor, checking for fever or respiratory symptoms, and self-quarantine, limiting your interactions with others, until 14 days after exposure. If you develop symptoms of COVID-19, you should self-isolate, avoiding others in your residence until no less than 7 days from symptom onset and 72 hours after your fever disappears and there is improvement in your respiratory symptoms. If you must leave the house or come into close contact with others, practice social distancing. To better understand when to self-monitor, self-quarantine, self-isolate, and practice social distancing, click here.

What do I do if I think I have COVID-19?

If you are experiencing non-life-threatening symptoms related to COVID-19, stay home and call your health care provider. Unless it is an emergency, avoid leaving your home to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the illness. To protect others in your home:

  • Keep away from others as much as possible by staying in a bedroom and using a bathroom separate from the rest of the household members
  • Use separate dishes, glasses, cups, and eating utensils, and after each use, wash them with hot soapy water
  • Do not share bedding and towels with other members of the household
  • Encourage household members to wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer often
  • Use household cleaner to wipe down areas (e.g., doorknobs, light switches, remote controls, counters, and phones) that you have touched

While the possibility of having a contagious illness can be scary, do your best to remain calm while you await further instructions from your healthcare provider.

What is social distancing and why is it important?

Social distancing is deliberately increasing physical space between people. By keeping a distance of six feet between yourself and others, you are at lower risk of spreading or catching COVID-19. Social distancing methods include:

  • Closing schools, restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other places where people gather in groups
  • Not getting together in person with friends
  • Avoiding stores and public transportation (e.g., buses, subways, taxis, and rideshares) unless absolutely necessary
  • Working from home

If you cannot maintain this six-foot distance from others, be sure to take precautions, such as using alcohol-based hand sanitizer before contact and washing your hands with soap and water immediately after contact.

How do I talk to my child(ren) about COVID-19?

Children aren’t oblivious to what is going on around them, especially when their daily routines have been altered to accommodate social distancing. By talking to your child(ren) about COVID-19, you can ease their worries and ensure they are getting reliable information. You can start by:

  • Asking what they know
  • Offering comfort and honesty
  • Talking about things that are happening to keep them safe and healthy
  • Assuring them that it’s okay to feel anxious

Remember to check in with them regularly to address any fears and help them stay up to date on ways to stay healthy.

How do I cope with anxiety and stress related to COVID-19?

It is normal to experience anxiety and stress during an infectious disease outbreak. However, those feelings can become overwhelming and lead to:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of loved ones
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

If you are having difficulty coping with the COVID-19 outbreak, check out these tips on how you can reduce your anxiety and stress.

How can I help during COVID-19?

More than 4,000 blood drives have been canceled across the United States. If you are healthy and looking for ways to help, consider donating blood or platelets at:

Donor centers and mobile drives across central Texas are open and exempt from the Shelter in Place order, and it is safe to donate blood and platelets as well as attend blood drives at this time.

As the COVID-19 outbreak is a rapidly evolving situation, information will be updated as it becomes available. Stay informed by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin, the group practice designed and managed by the faculty and staff of the Dell Medical School, focuses the expertise of a team of experienced medical professionals to deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality. Our experienced healthcare professionals treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.