Dear Dr. J

Dear Dr. J: Coronavirus!?

Dear Dr. J,

I’ve been reading the news about the new “coronavirus” outbreak – and I’m nervous. How do I protect myself and my family from getting sick? How do I know if I’ve picked up the symptoms?

Thanks for your advice,
Remaining calm


Dear Remaining calm,

Many of us know the feeling. Disease outbreaks are nerve-wracking, especially when your social news feeds are constantly pushing updates about new cases with life-threatening symptoms.

It’s important to take a breath, and know that for now, your chances of encountering the virus in the U.S. are low. Public health teams are assembling to tackle solutions – and public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will continue sharing the best safety and prevention information.

In the meantime, your instinct to take precautions is spot on. There are some things you can do to feel confident that you’re taking the best care of yourself and your family. First, let’s understand the basics.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large, common group of viruses that cause colds and other familiar respiratory infections. Pretty much everyone will have a run-in with a strain of these viruses at some point in their lives.

What is this coronavirus?

The particular coronavirus you’re reading about in the news is a new strain, that has not been previously seen in humans. It’s called 2019-nCoV by the scientific community, and was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

Standard symptoms include a cough, fever, muscle achiness, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Some early reports also include non-respiratory symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Many people recover within a few days, but others (those with weaker immune systems, children, the elderly) are at risk for developing a more serious respiratory infection like bronchitis or pneumonia. These can be life-threatening.

How do I stay healthy?

Though we don’t yet know exactly how this virus is transmitted, typical coronaviruses are spread through airborne particles from coughing and sneezing. If you haven’t been in close physical contact with someone who has the coronavirus (someone traveling from Wuhan, China) you’re not at high risk for contracting the illness. Only a handful of cases have been reported outside of China, and public health officials have put health screenings and travel restrictions in place to limit the virus’ spread. Currently, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.

Basic disease-prevention practices are your best tools for staying well:

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with your inner elbow or a tissue.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with your hands.
  • Stay home from work or school if you have a fever.
  • Stay away from people who have signs of a respiratory tract infection, such as runny nose, coughing, and sneezing.
  • Use hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for your surrounding area when traveling and in public places. If you’re on a plane, that means the surface of your seat and tray table.

Should I wear a mask?

If you’re not exhibiting any virus symptoms, these basic disease-prevention practices are the most effective tools to stay healthy. Wearing a mask is your last line of defense to prevent infection. The mask acts as a physical barrier to protect you from droplets containing viruses (from coughs and sneezes), but isn’t airtight.

The masks are most important for people who are symptomatic, or have a confirmed virus. If you have symptoms and cannot stay home, wearing the mask in public places is recommended to protect others you come in contact with. The CDC also recommends that symptomatic post-partum women use masks while caring for and breastfeeding their infant.

Have a safe and healthy 2020,

Dr. J

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