Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a serious disease, mainly of the respiratory system, affecting many people around the globe. It can cause mild to severe illness and even death. COVID-19 spreads easily between people. Learn how to protect yourself and others from this illness.
HOW COVID-19 SPREADS
COVID-19 is an illness caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 most commonly spreads between people within close contact (about 6 feet or 2 meters). When someone with the illness coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes, droplets carrying the virus spray into the air. You can catch the illness if you breathe in these droplets.
In some instances, COVID-19 may spread through the air and infect people who are more than 6 feet away. Small droplets and particles can remain in the air for minutes to hours. This is called airborne transmission, and it can occur in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. However, it is more common for COVID-19 to spread through close contact.
Less often, the illness can spread if you touch a surface with the virus on it, and then touch your eyes, nose, mouth, or face. But this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
The risk of spreading COVID-19 is higher when you interact closely with others who are not in your household for longer periods of time.
You can spread COVID-19 before you show symptoms. Some people with the illness never have symptoms, but can still spread the disease. However, there are ways to protect yourself and others from getting COVID-19:
- Always wear a face mask or face cover with at least 2 layers that fits snugly over your nose and mouth and is secured under your chin when you will be around other people. This helps reduce the spread of the virus through the air.
- Stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart from other people who are not in your household, even if you are wearing a mask.
- Wash your hands many times a day with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. Do this before eating or preparing food, after using the toilet, and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) if soap and water are not available.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. Droplets that are released when a person sneezes or coughs are infectious. Throw away the tissue after use.
- Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Do not share personal items such as cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding. Wash anything you have used in soap and water.
- Clean all "high-touch" areas in the home, such as doorknobs, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, toilets, phones, tablets, counters, and other surfaces. Use a household cleaning spray and follow instructions for use.
- Know the symptoms of COVID-19. If you develop any symptoms, call your health care provider.
PHYSICAL (OR SOCIAL) DISTANCING
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the community, you should practice physical distancing, also called social distancing. This applies to people of all ages, including young people, teenagers, and children. While anyone can get sick, not everyone has the same risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Older people and people with existing health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, HIV, or lung disease have a higher risk of developing severe illness.
Everyone can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and help protect those who are most vulnerable. These tips can help you and others stay safe:
- Check the public health department website for information on COVID-19 in your area and follow local guidelines.
- Anytime you go out of the house, always wear a face mask and practice physical distancing.
- Keep trips outside your home for essentials only. Use delivery services or curbside pick up when possible.
- Whenever possible, if you need to use public transportation or rideshares, avoid touching surfaces, stay 6 feet from others, improve circulation by opening windows (if you can), and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after your ride ends.
- Avoid poorly ventilated indoor spaces. If you need to be inside with others not in the same household, open windows to help bring in outdoor air. Spending time outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces can help reduce your exposure to respiratory droplets.
While you must remain physically apart from others, you don't have to be socially isolated if you choose safer activities.
- Reach out to friends and family via phone or video chats. Schedule virtual social visits often. Doing so can help remind you that we are all in this together, and you are not alone.
- Visit with friends or family in small groups outside. Be sure to stay at least 6 feet apart at all times, and wear a mask if you need to be closer than 6 feet even for a short time or if you need to go indoors. Arrange tables and chairs to allow for physical distancing.
- When greeting one another, don't hug, shake hands, or even bump elbows as this brings you in close contact.
- If sharing food, have one person do all the serving, or have separate serving utensils for each guest. Or have guests bring their own food and drinks.
- It is still safest to avoid crowded public places and mass gatherings, such as shopping centers, movie theaters, restaurants, bars, concert halls, conferences, and sports stadiums. If possible, it is also safer to avoid public transportation.
If you have COVID-19 or have symptoms of it, you must isolate yourself at home and avoid contact with other people, both inside and outside your home, to avoid spreading the illness. This is called home isolation (also known as "self-quarantine").
- As much as possible, stay in a specific room and away from others in your home. Use a separate bathroom if you can. Do not leave your home except to get medical care.
- Do not travel while sick. Do not use public transportation or taxis.
- Keep track of your symptoms. You may receive instructions on how to check and report your symptoms.
- Use a face mask or cloth face cover with at least 2 layers when you see your health care provider and anytime other people are in the same room with you. If you can't wear a mask, for example, due to breathing problems, people in your home should wear a mask if they need to be in the same room with you.
- While rare, there have been cases of people spreading COVID-19 to animals. For this reason, if you have COVID-19, it's best to avoid contact with pets or other animals.
- Follow the same hygiene practices everyone should follow: cover coughs and sneezes, wash your hands, don't touch your face, don't share personal items, and clean high-touch areas in the home.
You should remain at home, avoid contact with people, and follow the guidance of your provider and local health department about when to stop home isolation.
For the most up-to-date news and information about COVID-19, you can visit the following websites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
World Health Organization website. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic - www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.
COVID-19 - Prevention; 2019 Novel Coronavirus - Prevention; SARS CoV 2 - Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: How COVID-19 spreads. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html. Updated October 28, 2020. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: How to protect yourself and others. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html. Updated February 4, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Social distancing, quarantine, and isolation. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.html. Updated November 17, 2020. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html. Updated February 2, 2021. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Review Date 2/7/2021
Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.