While it may sound like an adequate term for something contracted on spring break in Cancun, coronavirus is a group of viruses that cause a respiratory infection – some types can be fatal, others can cause a common cold. Coronavirus is named for its appearance of crown-like spikes on their surface, a group which has cause worldwide outbreaks in the past.
Remember SARS? That outbreak (acronym for severe acute respiratory syndrome) resulted from a coronavirus infection. In 2002-2003, one strain of the virus resulted in 750 deaths by SARS, and just recently a supposedly “SARS-like” scare emerged due to a new coronavirus.
Over the past six months (from September 2012 to March 2013), 13 cases of the infection, referred to as novel coronavirus, have been reported, resulting in 7 deaths thus far – a devastating over 50 percent. First discovered by UK doctors from the Health Protection Agency in a resident of Qatar, the new illness presented itself in another patient from Saudi Arabia, who had died. At the end of November, four more people from Saudi Arabia were infected and one more died. As of February 21 of this year, 13 total cases had been reported throughout people who lived in or had visited the Middle East.
Coronaviruses are a type of virus, and six known types can cause infections in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that most everyone contracts a coronavirus during their life. Both the common cold and SARS are caused by coronaviruses. And while some scientists say it is premature to call novel coronavirus the new SARS, there may be reason to compare the two. The new virus is already posing a threat in its mortality rate and contagiousness – infecting people’s airways much more rapidly than SARS.
Which leads us to the group of viruses itself and what you should look for. Coronaviruses are obviously common enough to be the source of the common cold, to which everyone can relate, but a fatal outbreak is much more unusual. As the new coronavirus spreads, it brings it to our attention to the causes, prevention, and treatment for illnesses of this nature.
Coronavirus Types & Causes
According to the CDC, the five different types of coronaviruses that can infect humans include two alpha coronaviruses – 229E and NL63 – and three beta coronaviruses – HKU1, OC43, and SARS-CoV. Other species can also become infected by some of these coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV, making it a risk for pets and and wildlife. Over the last few months, a sixth type has emerged: NCoV, the name of the current coronavirus. As mentioned, most people acquire a coronavirus during their lifetime, but SARS-CoV seemed to be a one time deal. Not enough research has been released on NCoV yet to determine how contagious it is or how long it will last.
Young children are the most susceptible to coronaviruses, but anyone can become infected. Like other upper respiratory infections, the virus is likely airborne and contracted by being near others who are infected. Hand shaking, touching a doorknob or any other surface after an infected person has sneezed or coughed is a potential source of infection. Coronaviruses often occur in humans during the fall and winter in the United States, though they may infect people at any time of year.
Symptoms of Coronaviruses
Coronavirus symptoms in humans vary depending on the particular type, but all affect the upper respiratory system. Typically these symptoms are nothing serious, including runny nose, sore throat, fever, and cough. However, these viruses can also cause illness in the lower respiratory tract, such as pneumonia, especially in those who have weak immune systems. Cases of novel coronavirus have experienced several additional symptoms such as shortness of breath, reduced ability to breathe, and pneumonia in addition to cough and fever.
In order to protect yourself from a coronavirus, take similar measures to being around a person with a cold or flu: wash your hands frequently, sanitize surfaces, and avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. There are no vaccines for coronavirus; therefore it is imperative to do what you can to avoid it. If you feel such symptoms occurring and think you may be infected, the CDC recommends a few days of isolation and caution until you feel better. When you are contagious, you should stay home, away from others so you don’t risk spreading the illness.
Coughing and sneezing properly are also helpful when you don’t want the world to be sick with you. And until we know how SARS-like the novel coronavirus is, the mask craze can stay in 2003.
No vaccines and no specific treatments are prescribed for coronaviruses, except for taking measures to control your symptoms. Fever and headache can be reduced with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (no aspirin, especially in children), and breathing can be helped with steam and humidity. As it is suggested to stay home while you are infected, home remedies are strongly suggested while the virus is working its way out of your system. Like a cold or influenza virus, most coronaviruses are mild and will leave your body in a matter of days.
If your symptoms escalate and you feel unable to breathe, or become short of breath, contact your doctor. There is no known method of curing novel coronavirus, but seeking medical attention is a decent start and may get your symptoms under control.
How Health Plans Can Help
How effective is your health plan if you’re supposed to wait out the illness on your own? Well, coverage is always there for backup. Medical insurance reassures you that if the virus with which you have been infected causes serious health problems, you can manage. Finding a doctor immediately, getting diagnosed, and understanding your illness from a professional viewpoint are all key in knowing what course of treatment to take. While scouring the web may bring some moderately promising results, it is always best to call a physician, especially one who knows you.
Health plans help connect us to the providers we need, and if any complications were to arise, hospital treatment is hopefully in your schedule of benefits. If not, find yourself a different plan! The beauty of health insurance is that out-of-pocket costs for major medical care (like a hospital stay or ER visit) are majorly reduced as a policyholder. The last thing you want when your health is compromised is to worry about how much everything is going to cost. Most health plans will still neglect to cover exactly what you wish they would, but compare a $20 office visit and $100 ER copay to a $100 office visit and several thousand dollar fee for emergency care.
Additionally, you may require laboratory work for proper diagnosis. Lab tests are only available through the CDC and other major international labs such as the HPA and World Health Organization for novel coronavirus. Insurance may not cover that regardless, unless the CDC is in your network. If your immune system is weak and you develop pneumonia from a coronavirus, a slew of treatment may be required. Pneumonia can be treated in the hospital or at home, and may require medications such as antibiotics. In any case of coronavirus, pinpointing your illness through a doctor is essential.
1. Disease Daily. TakePart.com. Is This Scary New Virus the Next SARS?
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Coronaviruses.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overview of the Novel Coronavirus.
4. University of Maryland Medical Center. Pneumonia – Treatment.
Images: Getty Images, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.