A Doctor Explains The Main Way Coronavirus Likely Spreads

by Syeda Khaula Saad
Originally Published: 
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This post is updated regularly to reflect the latest news and science around coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

In December 2019, a new coronavirus was found and since its discovery, it's spread to more than 140 countries, affected over 153,000 people, and taken more than 5,700 lives. Business Insider reported that experts have predicted that this type of virus could cause the next pandemic, and on March 11, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom declared it as such. With more than 3,400 cases in the United States now, understanding how coronavirus spreads is crucial to avoiding it.

What Are The Symptoms Of Coronavirus?

The coronavirus seems docile on the surface, causing common cold and fever-like symptoms including coughing, headaches, and a runny nose. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these symptoms can evolve into a respiratory illness, known as COVID-19, accompanied by shortness of breath. Other emergency symptoms in adults include persistent chest pains, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips and face, according to the CDC. If someone affected with the virus has a particularly weak immune system, these issues can escalate to pneumonia or kidney failure, and even lead to death. High-risk groups include older adults and people who have serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease, the CDC reports.

How Does Coronavirus Spread?

Coronavirus is thought to spread between people who are in close contact with each other — specifically within six feet of distance, according to the CDC. "There had to have been actually an animal to human event at some point in this virus' history, however, what's occurring now is primarily the result of transmission between people," Dr. Amesh Adalja, M.D., FIDSA, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells Bustle. "The virus is likely spreading from person to person in respiratory droplets."

Respiratory droplets are formed when someone coughs or sneezes, and are often the reason infections and viruses spread so quickly from person to person. As of right now, respiratory droplets are considered the main way the coronavirus is spreading, according to the CDC. The center's site states, "These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs." This is why it stresses taking extra precaution with your hygiene. The CDC suggests a few preventative tips, including washing your hands with soap for more than 20 seconds, covering coughs, sneezing into tissues, and avoiding close contact with anyone who may be sick.

Can Asymptomatic People Still Spread COVID-19?

The CDC notes that there might be cases of people with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic. "Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms," the CDC's website says. "There have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."

However, a March 16 report from CNN points out that the spread of coronavirus in Massachusetts could've been started by asymptomatic people. "We now know that asymptomatic transmission likely [plays] an important role in spreading this virus," Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told CNN. He said that people who test positive for coronavirus but don't have symptoms "surely can fuel a pandemic like this in a way that's going to make it very difficult to control." Still, more research needs to be done.

How Contagious Is Coronavirus?

According to BBC, Chinese officials believe that the coronavirus has an incubation period of one to 14 days, during which a person may have the virus but show no symptoms. This makes it challenging to detect the virus and therefore harder to steer clear of it. In February, WHO released a report on coronavirus in China and estimated that the average person infects 2-2.5 people (this is also known as the R0 value). To put this into perspective, SARS had an R0 value of 3 and the seasonal flu has an R0 of 1.3.

What Is A Coronavirus Epidemic Vs. Pandemic?

According to the CDC, a pandemic is defined as an epidemic that's spread over multiple countries or continents, affecting a large number of people. This is considered more dangerous than an epidemic, which "refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area."

By declaring the coronavirus a pandemic, the WHO is able to establish the severity of the virus and bring attention to how quickly it's spreading. While China, the original source of the virus, is reported to have seen an improvement, other countries like Italy are still seeing drastic increases in new coronavirus cases and coronavirus-related deaths, NPR reports.

The WHO and CDC report that the best way to remain safe and protect yourself and others is to wash your hands thoroughly, maintain social distancing, and see a doctor if you feel any symptoms.

Can You Get Coronavirus From Your Phone?

Though you might think the idea of getting a virus from your phone is outlandish, the CDC hints it's a possibility. In reality, people can catch coronavirus by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes. Though the center also asserts that this is not the main way the virus spreads, it's better to practice as much precaution as possible. Apple noted that it's safe to use Clorox Disinfecting Wipes or a 70% isopropyl alcohol wipe to clean the nonporous surfaces of your phone or other Apple products.

Can You Get Coronavirus From Food?

Although this particularly coronavirus is believed to have originated in an animal, the European Food Safety Authority reported that there is no evidence suggesting the virus can be transmitted from food at this point. Instead, it's mutated to spread only from human to human.

Either way, the WHO is still pushing people to practice as much food safety as possible. This includes washing your hands between handling raw and cooked food, using different chopping boards for raw meat and cooked food, and avoiding eating potentially sick animals that may have died from disease. The WHO also reports that meat products even in areas of outbreaks can be safely consumed, so long as thoroughly cooked and properly handled.

Can You Get Coronavirus From Clothes?

While there isn't much information out there about coronavirus transmission through clothing or fabric, Harvard Health reports that the virus is more likely to survive on harder surfaces than softer ones like cloth and fabric. So it's difficult to determine if coronavirus can live on your clothes. But, as with other things, it's best to practice precaution. Washing your clothes often and disinfecting any laundry hampers or carts are recommended, according to the CDC.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.


Dr. Amesh Adalja, M.D., FIDSA, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

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