Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Kelsey Powell, MS, Medical Sciences

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COVID-19 is a disease caused by a virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). This virus belongs to a family of other coronaviruses, which are pathogens that are responsible for causing illnesses such as the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Coronaviruses get their name from the Latin word “corona,” which means “crown.” This name originates from the club-shaped surface proteins of the virus that resemble a crown when looking at them under a microscope. Coronaviruses are also distinguished as being zoonotic, which means that they have the capacity to jump from animal to human hosts.  

The exact source of SARS-CoV-2 remains unclear. However, it was first identified in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where it started the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak. In March of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared this outbreak a pandemic because the virus had rapidly begun infecting people around the globe.

SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, called COVID-19, have had major impacts on nearly every country in the world. The virus has resulted in the deaths of millions of people and has left millions more survivors with lingering health effects. Fortunately, the scientific community was able to mobilize quickly and develop safe, effective vaccines to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but it’s still vital to be aware of the symptoms, risk factors and treatments for the virus as you do your part to stop the spread.

Symptoms of COVID-19

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SARS-CoV-2 predominantly affects your respiratory system. It typically has an incubation period of 14 days. This means that you might not experience symptoms for two weeks, but you can still be contagious and spread the virus to other people during that time.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary from person to person. Some people may only experience mild symptoms, whereas others may not even have any at all. If you don’t have symptoms, you’re what’s referred to as an asymptomatic carrier.

If you do experience symptoms, they typically appear between two days and two weeks after you’re exposed to the virus. Common COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Nasal congestion or a runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash

Although COVID-19 typically causes mild to moderate symptoms in most individuals, it can result in severe medical complications and even death. Complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Organ failure
  • Heart problems
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Blood clots
  • Acute kidney injury
  • Persistent rash or hair loss
  • Depression or other psychiatric changes

Causes and Risk Factors for COVID-19

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COVID-19 is highly contagious, and the virus spreads from person to person through air droplets that infected people release when they cough, sneeze, talk or sing. Those particles can land in the eyes, noses and mouths of others, subsequently infecting those people. You can also become infected by touching your eyes, nose or mouth after touching a surface that’s been contaminated with viral droplets.

Anyone can contract COVID-19; however, high-risk groups include older adults and people with underlying health conditions such as:

  • Asthma
  • Liver disease
  • Obesity
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Immune deficiencies or a weakened/compromised immune system
  • Chronic lung diseases
  • Brain or nervous system conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease or conditions

Risk factors for COVID-19 include coming into close contact with someone who has the virus or having someone with the virus cough or sneeze on you. It’s important to limit your interactions with others — particularly if you or they are members of high-risk groups — as much as possible. You should also take the proper precautions, such as wearing a double-layer cloth mask and practicing social distancing, when you can’t avoid interactions or social situations.

Diagnosis and Treatment of COVID-19

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Testing can help determine whether or not you’ve been infected with SARS-CoV-2. There are two types of tests available for COVID-19:

  • A viral or diagnostic test is used to test for a current infection. This type of test includes either nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), which detect viral genetic material, or antigen tests, which detect specific viral proteins. These tests require a nasal or throat swab or sometimes a saliva sample.
  • An antibody or serology test is used to determine previous exposure or infection by detecting antibodies for SARS-CoV-2. Antibodies will typically be present 12 days or later after exposure. These tests require a blood sample.  

At-home collection kits or tests are available either by prescription or over the counter at most pharmacies.

Some people exhibit mild illness and recover from COVID-19 without needing any treatment other than common over-the-counter medications, such as fever reducers and cough syrups,  to alleviate symptoms. Even with mild symptoms, it’s still very important to get plenty of rest and to stay hydrated when combating the illness.

More severe COVID-19 cases can require hospitalization and supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation. Although there’s no cure for COVID-19, medications and treatments are available to help with some of the severe symptoms. These drugs include:

  • Remdesivir
  • Baricitinib
  • Dexamethasone and other corticosteroids
  • Bamlanivimab
  • Casirivimab
  • Etesevimab  

The antiviral drug remdesivir is currently the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved medication available for treating COVID-19. However, the rheumatoid arthritis drug baricitinib has received emergency use authorization from the FDA because it appears to reduce inflammation and have antiviral effects. Three monoclonal antibody treatments (amlanivimab, casirivimab and etesevimab) have also received emergency use authorization from the FDA to treat individuals who are at a higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 symptoms.

Additionally, convalescent plasma therapy is another method being used to treat individuals who are hospitalized from COVID-19. It uses antibodies from blood donors who have recovered from previous COVID-19 infections.    

Your Next Steps

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There are several actions you can take to minimize community spread of COVID-19. The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued the following recommendations to the public:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer oftetn.
  • Practice social distancing by staying home when possible, limiting contact with friends and family outside your home, and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and other people when in public settings.
  • Wear a face mask when in public, and ensure that the mask fits securely over your nose and mouth without gapping.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, mouth and nose.
  • Practice good respiratory hygiene by completely covering your mouth with a tissue or a bent elbow when coughing or sneezing and by immediately disposing of used tissues.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces you touch often, such as doorknobs, counters, phones, keys, light switches, toilets, faucets and sinks.

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