The basics: a quick primer on COVID-19

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM - Contributor Avatar

Written by Health Guide Team 

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM - Contributor Avatar

Written by Health Guide Team 

last updated: Jan 18, 2021

2 min read

Viruses are tiny infectious agents that can cause disease. Not all viruses cause disease in humans, and not all diseases are caused by viruses. The virus at the center of the current pandemic is called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

SARS-CoV-2 is from the same family of viruses that causes the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). SARS-CoV-2, specifically, causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Read more about the novel coronavirus here.


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COVID-19 is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the majority of patients have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Read more about coronavirus signs and symptoms here.

COVID-19 can progress to pneumonia. In severe cases, it can lead to an inability to breathe and even death. Older people and people with preexisting conditions are at an increased risk of experiencing the most severe symptoms. Read more about at-risk groups, here.

Many viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, can cause symptoms of the flu, including fever and cough. While the flu vaccine is widely available, it may be more difficult to track down a COVID vaccine, but efforts are ramping up to provide more wide-spread access to the vaccines in the US in the coming months. Read more about the flu shot and coronavirus here.

The FDA has granted emergency use authorization for one medication for the treatment of coronavirus (FDA, 2020). Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, has been shown in one study to improve symptoms and shorten hospital stays in patients hospitalized for COVID-19 infections. This treatment is not intended for everyone who contracts COVID-19 (FDA, 2020).

Symptoms of COVID-19 may not appear for days or even weeks after exposure. You can spread the virus even if you’re asymptomatic.

To ease the strain on the healthcare system and to save lives, we need to slow the spread of COVID-19 as much as we can. Here are the main ways you can do that. 

  • Stay home if you’re sick. To help prevent the spread of the disease, practice social distancing, which involves staying at least six feet away from people outside of your own household.

  • Wear a cloth face mask in public. Facemasks and respirators may be in short supply and should be reserved for healthcare providers and first responders.

  • Avoid large crowds of people.

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Have sanitizer available to clean your hands when soap and water aren’t available.

  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow.

  • Throw used tissues in the trash.

Read more about how to prevent and prepare for coronavirus here.


If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

How we reviewed this article

Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

January 18, 2021

Written by

Health Guide Team

Fact checked by

Mike Bohl, MD, MPH, ALM

About the medical reviewer

Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and a former Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.