What is a coronavirus?
Updated: Apr 5
Coronaviruses form a large family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses. These include the common cold as well as more serious diseases like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and the more recent coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Coronaviruses have been around for many years and as a result, humans have built up a general immunity to them. This means when we do get a common cold, it is usually not very severe.
However, coronaviruses are not just present in humans. Many animals also have coronavirus-related illnesses and sometimes those viruses can mutate and be passed on to humans. When this happens, the disease can be more severe because the human body has not had to fight this illness before. Both the SARS and MERS diseases are examples of this happening in recent years.
When a new strain of coronavirus is discovered, it is called a ‘novel' coronavirus.
What are the symptoms of a coronavirus?
Because coronaviruses can cause several different illnesses, they can have a variety of symptoms, both mild and severe.
Some common symptoms include:
How is a coronavirus transmitted?
Common coronaviruses are usually passed between humans when a person comes into contact with another infected person.
The less common coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS, developed by being passed from animals to humans. SARS was transmitted from civet cats and MERS from camels, although both viruses are thought to have originated in bats. As the virus develops, it can start to spread from one human to another if they are in close contact, such as with family members, co-workers and people in healthcare facilities.
How is a new coronavirus diagnosed?
A new coronavirus will require laboratory testing to determine whether a person has been infected.
How is a coronavirus treated?
There is no specific treatment for people who become infected with a coronavirus. Health professionals therefore treat the effects of the disease, such as respiratory infections or pneumonia.
How can coronavirus infection be prevented?
Like most viruses, the best protection against infection is to maintain good hand hygiene and safe food practices. Avoid touching your face and mouth until you have washed your hands. Also, avoid contact with someone who is showing signs of a respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing.
When a new outbreak is identified, governments and health organisations work together to identify the risks and issue health alerts to keep the public informed.
Who is most at risk of coronavirus infection?
Anyone who comes into direct contact with an infected animal or human can be at risk of contracting a coronavirus. New coronaviruses have started in a particular region and have then spread as people travel, taking the virus with them.
The elderly, children and people with certain underlying health conditions are usually more at risk of contracting a coronavirus if they come into contact with the virus.