Your Guide to Understanding COVID-19 Terms

Medically Reviewed by Madeline Hubbard, RN, BSN

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The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a dizzying amount of unfamiliar terms and phrases into our everyday lives. Though they can be confusing, it's important to have an accurate understanding of their meanings, especially if we want our communities to navigate the pandemic safely. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most common COVID-19-related terms — from how the virus spreads in communities, to treatment and test options to how to help slow the spread. Without a doubt, familiarizing yourself with this list is the first step to ensuring a safer tomorrow for yourself and others. 


Virus- & Outbreak-Related Terms

  • Coronavirus: There are many types of coronaviruses, all of which contain RNA and have crown-shaped spikes on their surfaces. Different types of these viruses can cause mild illness like the common cold, or more severe respiratory infections.
  • SARS-CoV-2 or the "novel coronavirus": These are both terms for the coronavirus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Because this particular virus was novel to humans, there was no existing immunity or ability to fight off the virus’ effects.
  • COVID-19: the name of the disease that SARS-COV-2 can cause. COVID-19 is a shortened version of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

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  • Zoonotic: A description of a disease that is able to spread from animals to humans. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), zoonotic diseases are relatively common — 6 out of 10 of all known diseases are zoonotic.
  • Outbreak: A localized uptick in cases. Outbreaks are often traceable to specific events like concerts, or locations like day care centers or nursing homes.
  • Epidemic: A larger than expected surge in the number of cases of a disease or illness in a particular geographic region or area.
  • Pandemic: An epidemic that has spread beyond geographical or national boundaries and has affected a large number of people on a global scale. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Transmission- & Spread-Related Terms

  • Airborne Transmission: A disease or illness that can be spread from person to person through the air. Airborne diseases tend to be more contagious than those requiring physical contact.
  • Aerosol: A tiny particle of respiratory fluid that contains viral material and can remain in the air for a period of time.
  • Droplet: A small drop of fluid. Droplets containing a virus can be expelled when an infected person talks, breathes, sneezes, or coughs.

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  • R0/‘R-naught’: A number indicating the average number of people that will catch a disease or illness from one infected person. R0 is used as a measure of how contagious a disease is. The R0 for COVID-19 transmission in the United States varies by region.
  • Community Transmission: This refers to cases of infection that cannot be directly linked to known travel of an individual or a previously identified positive case.
  • Asymptomatic: When one is displaying no symptoms or outward signs of having a disease throughout the course of infection. Evidence suggests that individuals who are asymptomatic can still transmit the virus to others.
  • Presymptomatic/Incubation Period: When one is not yet displaying symptoms due to an early stage of infection. The virus can still be spread during this time period.
  • Super-spreader: A person who transmits a disease or illness to an unusually high number of people.

Prevention- & Mitigation-Related Terms

  • Social and Physical Distancing: The practice of reducing close person-to-person contact in a community in order to decrease the transmission rate of a virus or illness. Social distancing measures include instructions to work from home, plexiglass barriers, or six-foot markers in public spaces.
  • Contact Tracing: The process of public health officials identifying individuals who have been infected with or exposed to a viral illness in order to further mitigate and manage the virus’s spread within a community.
  • Flattening the Curve: The "curve" here refers to the shape on graphs like number of cases or hospitalizations. ‘Flattening’ these curves involves taking steps like sheltering in place, social distancing, and self quarantining in order to prevent surges of patients that need hospitalization and treatment all at once.

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  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): PPE refers to clothing or materials that are specially made to act as a barrier against exposure or infection. Examples of PPE include face shields, masks, goggles, gowns and gloves.
  • N95: Also called a respirator, this special type of mask covers the nose and mouth and is manufactured to safely filter particles that can cause COVID-19 when fit-tested and used correctly. These masks are typically reserved for healthcare workers or those coming in close contact with active infection, and are not recommended for use in public.
  • Quarantine/Self-Quarantine: A quarantine is a period of isolation following exposure or potential exposure to a virus, in order to prevent passing the virus to others. Individuals who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 are advised to quarantine for at least 10 days following the exposure.
  • Isolation/Self-Isolation: When an individual has a confirmed or suspected case of an illness or virus, they should isolate. Isolation differs from quarantine in that quarantine occurs following potential exposure to an illness, and isolation occurs after an individual has been infected.
  • Vaccine: Vaccinations introduce a small amount of inactivated or weakened virus so that the body can produce antibodies that work by recognizing the virus and preventing it from causing disease in the future. Vaccines are preventative measures that can increase immunity on a large scale.

Testing- & Treatment-Related Terms:

  • Molecular or Viral Test: A test used to determine if a person currently has an active infection from SARS-CoV-2. Viral tests work by analyzing a sample of saliva or mucus in order to determine whether the virus is present.
  • Antibody Test: A test that detects whether a person has antibodies for a specific virus or illness. Antibodies are proteins created by the body’s immune system that combat a specific virus or illness. These tests are not used to pick up on active infections.

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  • Remdesivir (Veklury): An antiviral drug that has been approved by the FDA for treatment of COVID-19. Remdesivir works by preventing replication of RNA within viral particles so that the virus cannot multiply and spread within the body as easily.
  • Dexamethasone: A corticosteroid with anti inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, often used to combat respiratory illness. Dexamethasone is recommended as a treatment for moderate to severe COVID-19 to work against tissue damage in the lungs.
  • Ventilator: When a patient isn’t able to breathe on their own, a ventilator can be used in the hospital to help them breathe. A tube is inserted into the patient’s windpipe through the mouth and a machine works to supply oxygen directly to the patient’s lungs.

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