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How Do You Get Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Reviewed on 3/20/2020

Ask a Doctor

I’ve been reading the news about the novel Wuhan coronavirus from China (COVID-19). I’m anxious to protect myself and my family, as one of the U.S. cases of coronavirus was diagnosed nearby to where I live. How contagious is Wuhan coronavirus? How do I prevent my family from being exposed to coronavirus? How can I protect myself from coronavirus?

Doctor’s Response

Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) spreads the way most cold viruses do. It spreads through respiratory droplet secretions containing coronavirus that come into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth, either from breathing them in after someone coughs or sneezes, or from being rubbed into these areas by hands after touching secretions on a contaminated surface. Crowds and public places increase the opportunities for infection. Being in enclosed spaces with a lot of people increases exposure as well.

Most coronaviruses are as contagious as common cold viruses or influenza virus (the flu virus). In other words, they can be very contagious from person to person but not as contagious as measles. For example, direct contact of hands with secretions or breathing within 3 feet of a cough or sneeze is required, not simply walking by a sick person.

The best way to prevent coronavirus and other respiratory viruses that often circulate at the same time is to avoid inhaling infectious respiratory secretions or touching surfaces that may be contaminated.

Here are tips to keep you and your family safe from infection not just from Wuhan coronavirus, but from infectious germs in general:

  • Limit being in public or crowded places during winter and spring or when an outbreak of respiratory viruses is suspected.
  • Stay home if you are sick with cold symptoms.
  • If you must be around other people, cover your cough or sneeze with your elbow or sleeve to avoid contaminating your hands and then contaminating objects you touch. You can also use tissues that you can throw away.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer often, especially if frequently touching potentially contaminated surfaces (for example, public keyboards, touch pads, doorknobs, elevator buttons).
  • Surgical masks are of limited value in preventing transmission or infection with most respiratory viruses, especially if they are worn a long time and become moist from breath. Masks do not replace the respiratory and hand hygiene measures above.
  • Health care workers should pay close attention to public health guidance about severe respiratory virus outbreaks to reduce their risk of infection. For MERS, SARS, and 2019-nCoV, people usually use barriers such as gloves, gowns, and masks during a hospital stay.
There is no vaccine for coronaviruses at this time.

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Reviewed on 3/20/2020
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