This story has been updated.
The new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is officially a pandemic. People in every U.S. state and nearly every country are infected. And although it’s highly contagious, it’s also possible to recover from its symptoms—in fact, recovery numbers are steadily increasing around the globe.
As we wait for the new coronavirus to run its course, it’s good to stay informed. This no-nonsense, panic-free FAQ answers some of your most pressing questions.
1. What is the new coronavirus?
The new coronavirus is the same type of virus that causes the common cold and flu, as well as more serious illnesses like SARS and MERS, and this new one is extremely serious. It causes a respiratory disease called COVID-19 (which is an abbreviation of Corona Virus Disease 2019). The virus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It has since spread throughout the world. People who get the virus can be asymptomatic, feel like they have a cold or flu, or have complications causing pneumonia, strokes, heart problems, and possible death. It spreads from person to person through infected droplets when a person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. You can catch it by being in the direct path of their droplets, or by touching an infected surface and then touching your nose or mouth.
2. Can my pets be infected with the new coronavirus, or can I catch it from my pets?
There have been no reports and no evidence of transmission from pet to person, though there has been a handful of person-to-pet cases. A dog in Hong Kong tested positive for the new coronavirus (without showing symptoms) after its owner got sick. Cats, on the other hand, have been shown to get sick from coronavirus and to spread it among each other.
The possibility of transmission between pets and their owners is still relatively unknown. Remember, though, that your pet's toys or food bowl “could potentially have the virus on it,” Monya De, an internist in Los Angeles, tells Mental Floss. “Can they go lick the neighbor kid, and the neighbor kid has disease, and they then transmit it to you? I’d be more worried about surfaces.”
3. How long does the new coronavirus stay on various surfaces?
We don't know for sure, but the World Health Organization (WHO) does note that it can stay on certain surfaces for a few hours up to a few days, similar to previous coronaviruses. A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March, found that the virus is detectable on these materials for these durations:
Aerosols: three hoursCopper: four hoursCardboard: up to 24 hoursPlastic: two to three daysStainless steel: two to three days
While person-to-person contact is still the main mode of virus transmission, the CDC recommends cleaning frequently-touched surfaces often—including doorknobs, phones, faucets, and light switches—with a regular household cleaner or wipe. It probably wouldn't hurt to blast your Amazon deliveries with a disinfectant spray before opening them, too.
4. Does drinking alcohol kill the new coronavirus?
No, not even a little. Alcohol may kill the virus on surfaces when it’s in sanitizer, but it won’t work for your own body. “When you consume alcohol, it immediately starts to break down in your GI tract,” De says. “It has much more chance of causing liver damage and damage to your mucous membranes over time. The alcohol is broken down before it has the chance to sterilize your body in any way.”
5. Do I need to wash all my food?
Probably not, unless you saw someone sneeze on, breathe on, cough on, or manhandle your groceries. Coronaviruses are spread from person to person through infected respiratory droplets. There’s no evidence of the food itself transmitting the disease. But it doesn’t hurt to be sanitary: Wash your hands before handling food, wash your fruits and vegetables as you normally do, and cook everything to the right temperature.
6. How is COVID-19 different from the flu or a cold?
COVID-19 symptoms are frustratingly similar to the common cold and flu. Here are the symptoms you should expect, depending on what virus you have.
COVID-19: Slowly developing fever or chills, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell, muscle or body aches, sore throatCold: Sneezing, aches and pains, runny or stuffy nose, sore throatFlu: Rapid-onset fever, cough, fatigue, aches and pains, headache
7. If I’m unlikely to become seriously ill, is it OK to live life normally?
Nope. People of any age are able to catch the virus, and you may be asymptomatic and have the disease without knowing it. Staying inside and away from other people is the only sure way to stop the spread at this point. Even if you don’t think you’ll get sick, someone you come in contact with could, and they could be immunocompromised—meaning it would do far worse harm to them than to you. If you absolutely must go out, keep a distance of about 6 feet between you and anyone else.
8. Are most serious cases of COVID-19 in the elderly?
Most serious cases are in people who have compromised immune systems. That means the elderly, plus anyone with an underlying health condition like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease—regardless of their age.
9. What are the best protection measures against the new coronavirus?
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. If you can’t do that, use antibacterial hand sanitizer. Keep 6 feet between you and other people. Wear a mask or a cloth face covering if you have to go outside. Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you're not wearing a mask, cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. If you feel sick, stay home.
10. Can I take antibiotics or a vaccine for COVID-19?
There is currently no vaccine for the virus. Antibiotics won’t work because they treat bacterial infections, not viral infections. Antiviral drugs like remdesivir are given only to severely sick patients; remdesivir has been shown to reduce the average length of a hospital stay in COVID-19 patients. Possible vaccines are in clinical trials, but it will still be a while before they’re available to the general public.
11. Should I wear a mask?
Yes. Because public health officials believe the coronavirus can be transmitted between infected people even if they show no symptoms, you should wear a mask or cloth face covering in public and especially when social distancing is not possible.
12. What should I do if I think I’m sick with COVID-19 symptoms?
If you have symptoms or have been in contact with an infected person, call your doctor. They’ll determine if you need to go to the doctor's office or get tested for the new coronavirus. Plan to isolate yourself until you’re feeling better. Do not go to an emergency room unless you have severe symptoms; you may infect other people there. (If you do have trouble breathing, chest pain, or sudden confusion, call 911.)
13. What’s the proper way to self-quarantine or self-isolate?
If you've been traveling or have had contact with a potentially infected person, experts recommend quarantining yourself to slow the spread of illness. That means staying home, avoiding visitors, washing your hands frequently, and thoroughly cleaning surfaces during the quarantine period.
If you need to self-isolate because you’ve tested positive or are otherwise sick, you should follow strict guidelines. Stay home, put on a face mask, and limit your contact with other people in your household. Do not go out or get on public transportation. Restrict the amount of time you spend with pets, just in case. Continue to cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze, and regularly wash your hands. Don’t share household items, and clean common surfaces every day. You’ll want to monitor your symptoms, too. If they change or get worse, be sure to call your doctor.
14. Is coronavirus some sort of deep-state conspiracy?
15. How can I maintain a sense of sanity during this pandemic?
Overall, De says, the biggest thing right now is to be nice to yourself. There’s a lot of lingering anxiety right now, and it’s only made worse with social distancing measures and the constant flow of news. She suggests adding daily meditation to your routine, and uninstalling news apps, even if just for a day. Read a book instead of watching TV or playing on your phone. Have a virtual dinner party or movie night, or play board game over Skype.
“There are a lot of ways you can relieve stress and still maintain that personal connection without visiting anyone right now,” she says. “This is really a time to treat yourself to a little escapism.”