The coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is spreading in the United States and the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a pandemic. For most people, the immediate risk of being exposed to the coronavirus is considered low, but as the outbreak expands, the risk will increase, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases of coronavirus and instances of community spread are being reported in a growing number of states.

This is a health situation that continues to evolve. CDC notes the following:

  • People in places where ongoing community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at elevated risk of exposure, with the level of risk dependent on the location.
  • Healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Close contacts of persons with COVID-19 also are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations where community spread is occurring also are at elevated risk of exposure, with increase in risk dependent on location.

Coronaviruses are a group of respiratory viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe disease. “Most of us have been infected with a coronavirus at some point in our lives,” reports New York City board-certified allergist and immunologist Purvi Parikh, MD. “The thing about the COVID-19 strain is it’s a mutated version of the virus.”

People with asthma, COPD and other chronic respiratory diseases are at greater risk for complications – such as pneumonia or bronchitis – if they are diagnosed with this novel strain of coronavirus. Given that 24 million people in the United States have asthma, and 10 people die from the disease daily, prevention for those with this chronic disease is vital.

What are symptoms to watch out for?

Symptoms vary in severity. Many cases are mild, but some are life-threatening – usually in people who have some type of compromised immunity.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Some people infected with the virus may not show symptoms for as long as 14 days after exposure.

Who is at greatest risk for severe complications?

Some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. This includes:

  • Older adults, with risk increasing by age.
  • People who have serious chronic medical conditions such as:
    • Lung diseases including asthma and COPD
    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease

How is it spread?

The coronavirus can be spread from person to person. Similar to colds and viruses, it spreads via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The coronavirus could also be spread by touching a contaminated surface or object – a cellphone or computer keyboard and mouse, for example – and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.

What prevention strategies are recommended by CDC?

Preventive measures are the same as what’s recommended to avoid the flu or the common cold:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not immediately available.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
  • Avoid sharing anything – including cups, water bottles and eating utensils.
  • Disinfect all frequently touched surfaces.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

If you have asthma, COPD or another chronic respiratory disease, be sure you are continuing to follow your treatment plan.

What about face masks?

According to CDC, face masks should only be used by people who show coronavirus symptoms so they can avoid spreading the disease to others; and by healthcare workers in close contact with someone infected by the coronavirus.

CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from any respiratory disease, including the coronavirus.

What do I do if I’m sick?

If you suspect you may have the coronavirus, CDC says you should call your doctor and tell them about your symptoms and your potential exposure. They will decide whether you need to be tested, but keep in mind that there is no treatment for the coronavirus and people who are mildly ill are able to isolate at home.

Other important measures if you are sick:

  • Wear a facemask when around other people if instructed to do so by your doctor.
  • Separate yourself from other people in your home
  • Cover your cough and sneezes, or cough into your elbow
  • Wash your hands often
  • Don’t share objects

Keep in mind there is currently no vaccine for the coronavirus.

Is there anything I can do to boost my immune system?

It’s best to live a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious clean diet and exercise no matter if there is a pandemic or not, says Purvi Parikh, MD.

“No supplements have been linked to immune boosting, but you can take vitamin D if you are low or deficient — low levels of vitamin D can affect your immune system,” Dr. Parikh says. “Most important actions are social distancing, washing your hands and not touching your face. If you are sick, please stay home!”

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