A coronavirus is a common virus that causes an infection in your nose, sinuses, or upper throat. Most coronaviruses are not dangerous. Coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s, but we don't know where they come from. They get their name from their crown-like shape. Sometimes, but not often, a coronavirus can infect both animals and humans.
Most coronaviruses spread the same way other cold-causing viruses do: through infected people coughing and sneezing, by touching an infected person's hands or face, or by touching things such as doorknobs that infected people have touched.
Almost everyone gets a coronavirus infection at least once in their life, most likely as a young child. In the United States, coronaviruses are more common in the fall and winter, but anyone can come down with a coronavirus infection at any time.
People around the world commonly get infected with human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1. Sometimes coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and make people sick and become a new human coronavirus.
Coronaviruses cause diseases in mammals and birds that include diarrhea in cows and pigs, and upper respiratory disease in chickens. In humans, the virus causes respiratory infections, often mild, but in rare cases potentially lethal. There are no vaccines or antiviral drugs that are approved for prevention or treatment.
Often a coronavirus causes upper respiratory infection symptoms like a stuffy nose, cough, and sore throat. You can treat them with rest and over-the-counter medication. The coronavirus can also cause middle ear infections in children.
Some types of them are serious, though. About 858 people have died from Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which first appeared in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and then in other countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In April 2014, the first American was hospitalized for MERS in Indiana and another case was reported in Florida. Both had just returned from Saudi Arabia. In May 2015, there was an outbreak of MERS in Korea, which was the largest outbreak outside of the Arabian Peninsula. In 2003, 774 people died from That outbreak. As of 2015, there were no further reports of cases of SARS. MERS and SARS are types of coronaviruses.
Common human coronaviruses
Common human coronaviruses, including types 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1, usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. Most people get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives. These illnesses usually only last for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include
- runny nose
- sore throat
- a general feeling of being unwell
Human coronaviruses can sometimes cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. This is more common in people with cardiopulmonary disease, people with weakened immune systems, infants, and older adults.
In most cases, you won't know whether you have a coronavirus or a different cold-causing virus, such as rhinovirus. You could get lab tests, including nose and throat cultures and blood work, to find out whether your cold was caused by a coronavirus, but there's no reason to. The test results wouldn't change how you treat your symptoms, which typically go away in a few days.
But if a coronavirus infection spreads to the lower respiratory tract (your windpipe and your lungs), it can cause pneumonia, especially in older people, people with heart disease, or people with weakened immune systems.
Other human coronaviruses
Two other human coronaviruses, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV have been known to frequently cause severe symptoms. MERS symptoms usually include fever, cough, and shortness of breath which often progress to pneumonia. About 30-40% patients reported with MERS have died. MERS cases continue to occur, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula.
SARS symptoms often included fever, chills, and body aches which usually progressed to pneumonia. No human cases of SARS have been reported anywhere in the world since 2004.
Your healthcare provider may order laboratory tests on respiratory specimens and serum (part of your blood) to detect human coronaviruses. Laboratory testing is more likely to be used if you have severe disease or are suspected of having MERS.
If you are experiencing symptoms, you should tell your healthcare provider about any recent travel or contact with animals. Most MERS-CoV infections have been reported from countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore reporting a travel history or contact with camels or camel products is very important when trying to diagnose MERS.
Human coronaviruses most commonly spread from an infected person to others through
- the air by coughing and sneezing
- close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
- touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands
- rarely, fecal contamination
In the United States, people usually get infected with common human coronaviruses in the fall and winter. However, you can get infected at any time of the year. Most people will get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime. Young children are most likely to get infected. However, people can have multiple infections in their lifetime.
How to protect yourself
There are currently no vaccines available to protect you against human coronavirus infection. You may be able to reduce your risk of infection by following Common Cold Prevention protocols.
- wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- avoid close contact with people who are sick
How to protect others
If you have cold-like symptoms, you can help protect others by doing the following
- stay home while you are sick
- avoid close contact with others
- cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands
- clean and disinfect objects and surfaces
There are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses. Most people with common human coronavirus illness will recover on their own. However, you can do some things to relieve your symptoms
- take pain and fever medications (Caution: do not give Aspirin to children or teen's younger than 19.)
- use a room humidifier or take a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
If you are mildly sick, you should
- drink plenty of liquids
- stay home and rest
If you are concerned about your symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider.
A humidifier or steamy shower can also help ease a sore and scratchy throat.
Even when a coronavirus causes MERS or SARS in other countries, the kind of coronavirus infection common in the U.S. isn't a serious threat for an otherwise healthy adult. If you get sick, treat your symptoms and contact a doctor if they get worse or don't go away.