FAQs: Covid-19 (the virus)

Health information about the virus including risk, symptoms and testing (Updated 16th Sept 2020)

This article is about the virus itself. For information on how the virus is affecting how we live our everyday lives see: FAQs: Living with Covid-19

What we see as the key messages are in the box below. 

The key messages about Covid-19 are very simple:

  • wash your hands regularly and well and follow government hygiene guidance. (There is an online joke suggesting washing your hands as well as if you've just chopped chillis and now want to masturbate. That is actually good advice.) 
  • keep away from others - stay home if you can and if out keep at least 2m from others. This is 'social distancing'. (If you don't understand why social distancing applies to everyone, not just those at higher risk, read: Social distancing is about understanding risk). You should wear a mask where required but should still social distance as far as possible.

You can check the following for more specific advice for your country:

Just remind me: what is Covid-19?

It is a new type of coronavirus that was first detected in China at the end of 2019. Because it’s new, most of us don't have immunity to it yet.

Some coronoviruses are mild; some like SARS in 2002 are more serious. This is one of the more dangerous - worldwide getting on for a million people have died and the real total is probably far more. The virus is spreading across the world including the UK at speed.

How do you catch Covid-19?

Through contact with someone who has it. It’s a respiratory virus meaning it affects lungs and breathing. It is spread through water droplets in coughs and sneezes.

These water droplets can also live on surfaces. Most respiratory viruses such as corona viruses can live on surfaces for a few days. It depends on the surface and the temperature.

Viruses survive longest in colder, dry environments - that why we have respiratory viruses (such as colds and flu) in winter.

What are the symptoms of Covid-19? 

There are three symptoms which the NHS says 'most people with coronavirus have at least one of'.

Since the start of the crisis, the NHS have listed high temperature and new continuous cough as the main symptoms. On Monday 18th May they added: loss of or changes in sense of taste or smell (meaning you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different from normal).

There are other symptoms including breathlessness, headache, muscle ache and other symptoms typical to colds and flu. (For some, symptoms appear to develop over a few days: a high temperature, then a cough, then breathlessness.)

Do I need to take my temperature?

No. You can usually tell if you have a high temperature - your forehead, back or chest will feel hot. Some public places are checking people’s temperatures. 

As regards coughing, the NHS say to look out for coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours. (If you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual.)

But the truth there are many symptoms associated with the virus, many of which also appear in other conditions. To coin a phrase, stay alert. If you're feeling poorly and it persists, seek help.

How do I avoid Covid-19?

The main thing is to avoid getting the water droplets carrying the virus onto your face.

All of the following are designed to stop this from happening:

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap. Do this often, especially when you get home or to work. Only touch your face with clean hands.
  • Clean hands with alcohol-based sanitiser gel (60-80% alcohol preferably) if there’s no soap and water
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue (and bin it immediately). If there’s no alternative, use your sleeve (but remember viruses can live for days on clothing). Wash hands as soon as you can.
  • Avoid touching door handles, switches etc - use gloves, extend your sleeve or use your foot, hip, elbow or parts of your hand you’re unlikely to touch to your face (eg. your knuckle or closed fist)
  • Keep 2m away from others - if you're in a space where this might be difficult, consider a face covering (mask, bandana, burkha, whatever). In some places (eg. shops and public transport) you must wear a mask.

There's more on living with Covid-19 and staying at home without going mad on this website and the offical guidance on what you can and can't do in England on the government website. 

Am I at risk of Covid-19?

Yes. We’re all at risk. But it’s not just about you. If you’re young and fit, the virus in you may be less severe than in an older person (but not necessarily - it also kills young fit people). The point is you don’t want to be the person who passes a potential killer on to someone else. To minimise the impact of the virus, we all need to do these things mentioned above.

Many - but not all - of the people dying from Covid-19 are older and/or have existing health issues (such as diabetes or diseases of the lungs, heart or liver). For this reason, older people or those with existing health issues that may weaken their resistance need to be especially mindful of the guidance.

The lungs of children are not fully developed until their teens. It may offer some protection against this particular virus. But we really don't know how it affects children or how infectious they might be to others. 

It’s a myth that young adults are not affected - Li Wenliang the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm about the new virus and later died was only 34 years old.

It’s a respiratory virus so smokers who get the virus are at more risk of it being serious.

At any given age, men are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 as women. There is more on the biological and behavioural reasons why men might be at greater risk on this site.

People from black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are also at higher risk.

I have symptoms

If you have:

  • a high temperature and/or
  • a new, continuous cough,
  • loss or change to your sense of smell or taste 

and you live alone, the NHS say you should use the 111 online Coronavirus service: 111.nhs.uk/covid-19

If your symptoms are mild, you'll probably be advised to stay at home (self-isolate) for 7 days. But, and this is very important, if you live with others, the whole household should self-isolate for 14 days. You should try to keep contact with others in the house to a minimum.

At this stage, only call NHS 111 if you can't get help online.

Call 111 or again visit 111.nhs.uk/covid-19 if an individual's symptoms get worse or do not clear up after seven days.

Don't go out if you're infectious. Under emergency powers, police and some other public officials will be able to detain you if they suspect you have Covid-19.

Can I get tested?

Theoretically. The goverment say swab tests to see whether you have the virus are available for:

  • anyone in England and Wales who has symptoms of coronavirus, whatever their age
  • anyone in Scotland and Northern Ireland aged over 5 who has symptoms of coronavirus

The official guidance explans how.

You should be able to access 'priority testing' if you or someone in your household is an essential worker (the essential worker list is longer than you might think - not just NHS).

England are also testing: social care workers and residents in care homes, with or without symptoms and NHS workers and patients without symptoms, in line with NHS England guidance.

Have I had the virus?

Hard to say. There is an antibody test. This is a blood test detects if you have any antibodies to the virus which may have developed if you have the virus.

In England, antibody tests are only currently available for NHS and care staff.

Two very big health warnings:

  • We don't know yet whether those who have had the virus can get it again. This means that a positive test showing you've had the virus would not guarantee you wouldn't get it again.
  • Antibody testing is complicated. The government says that home antibody tests that work using a finger prick of blood are not reliable.
What is self-isolation?

The aim of self-isolation is to keep you away from others so that if you do have it, you don’t pass it on. It involves staying at home as separate as possible from others. Ideally, stay in your room. Use the bathroom after everyone else in your household and then clean it. Don’t share towels, utensils etc. Get delivered items left outside. The NHS has useful advice for those staying at home and there's more on this site.

I'm a carer.

Carers UK have published some useful guidance.

Is there a vaccine?

Not yet and there is not currently one on the horizon - although there are a lot candidates being tested.

What about the pneumonia vaccine? I've heard that most Covid-19 deaths are pneumonia.

Probably not effective in this case as Covid-19 causes viral pneumonia. Respiratory physician Professor John Wilson, who is president-elect of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said: 'The pneumonia vaccine is aimed at a bacterial infection (pneumococcus) not a viral pneumonia.'

John also ruled out the flu vaccine. 'The influenza vaccine is closer, but this is a different virus and (the vaccine is) not known to be active against Covid-19.'

However, you should get a flu vaccine if you can, as high levels of Covid -19 plus high levels of flu will put the NHS under serious strain. The number of people eligible for a free flu vaccine has been increased. See if you're eligible.

How do I find out more about Covid-19?

In England, you can find general Covid-19 info at: nhs.uk and from the online 111 service: 111.nhs.uk.

Outside England, there's also:

Date published 09/03/20
Date of last review 12/06/20
Date of next review 16/06/20


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