Coronavirus disease, (COVID-19) is characterized by severe acute respiratory syndrome, (SARS) which is a contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus (CoV) that is similar to the one that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003. Because of these characteristics, this coronavirus is formally known as “SARS-CoV-2.” The number “19” is associated with coronavirus disease because the first documented case of someone being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus occurred in December 2019, in the city of Wuhan, China. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic, recognizing that the virus had spread worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic is the first pandemic in history to be caused by a coronavirus, as opposed to other types of infectious diseases.
If a person is exposed to the coronavirus, they may experience a wide range of symptoms, they may not experience any symptoms at all, or they may begin experiencing symptoms several days after first being exposed. A person exposed to the coronavirus can spread the coronavirus to people near them through airborne respiratory droplets, even if they are not currently experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms of being infected by the coronavirus include:
While the symptoms of COVID-19 vary greatly between people who are exposed to the coronavirus, the condition can be fatal. Mortality is increased in people of advanced age and those with certain underlying conditions, including cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, obesity, and cancer, as well as people with compromised immune systems.
Some people who recover from COVID-19 continue to experience chronic symptoms, which is a distinct condition referred to as “long COVID.” Review our Long COVID General Information page to learn more.
If a patient recovers from COVID-19 and does not experience persistent symptoms, they may still be at heightened risk of developing other associated conditions following their recovery. Review our Post-COVID Conditions page to learn more.
Depending on the severity of a person’s COVID-19 symptoms, they may qualify for disability benefits, such as short-term disability insurance, long-term disability insurance, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), among others. Review our COVID-19 and Disability Benefits page to learn more.
Because of how easily the coronavirus can spread between people, the best strategies for avoiding exposure to the coronavirus include wearing a face mask, maintaining several feet of distance from other people (“social distancing”), and washing your hands frequently. Several vaccines that protect against the coronavirus have been developed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted these COVID-19 vaccines Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for use in certain populations and has granted full approval for the use of three vaccines in certain populations (Comirnaty and Spikevax). These vaccines are available to the American public for free. These vaccines are highly effective at protecting adults from developing severe symptoms of COVID-19 and significantly reducing the mortality of the disease. However, while the COVID-19 vaccines can protect against severe COVID-19 symptoms and death, they do not completely prevent the virus from spreading. They also do not eliminate the risk of developing long COVID following COVID-19 infection. While imperfect, the benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 likely outweigh the risks associated with the vaccine itself and the health consequences of contracting COVID-19 for most people.
On August 31, 2022, the FDA authorized the use of bivalent mRNA COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Bivalent vaccines contain updated components that provide protection against both the original strain of the coronavirus and the omicron variant. Following this authorization, the original, outdated formulation of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines will no longer be available for vaccine boosters. Newer vaccines, known as “pan-coronavirus vaccines,” are being developed that can protect against all future coronavirus variants.
To learn more about the eligibility criteria for the COVID-19 vaccines, please review our Vaccine Eligibility Guide.
The COVID-19 vaccines may not be effective at preventing severe COVID-19 infection for individuals with compromised immune systems because they are unable to mount an adequate immune response to the vaccine. Additionally, some individuals may be unable to get vaccinated because they have a history of severe adverse reactions to components of the vaccine. Individuals belonging to either of these groups may be able to utilize a monoclonal antibody treatment for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to acquire temporary protection against COVID-19.
Currently, there is no cure for COVID-19. However, some strategies may be employed to reduce disease severity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home, drinking plenty of fluids, and isolating yourself away from other people in your home to prevent spreading the coronavirus to them. Additionally, the CDC recommends resting while monitoring your symptoms and taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever. If symptoms become more severe, contact your health care provider immediately. Severe symptoms of COVID-19 that present a medical emergency include:
If your symptoms are severe enough to require additional medical care or if you become hospitalized due to COVID-19, your treating health care provider may recommend treatment to reduce the severity of your symptoms. The FDA has approved or granted EUA for the following treatments, which can reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and reduce disease mortality:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has published treatment guidelines for patients with COVID-19. These guidelines include up-to-date information on a variety of treatment options, including experimental therapies that have not yet been approved for the treatment of COVID-19. The New York Times also maintains a treatment tracker that lists the available treatments for COVID-19.
When a person becomes infected with COVID-19, the virus replicates within that person’s body. This causes new copies of the virus to inherit genetic mutations that differentiate it from the original virus, which have the potential to disrupt the human immune system’s ability to respond to the coronavirus. When a genetic mutation results in a more infectious variant of the coronavirus, that variant often spreads to other people and particularly infectious variants can spread so quickly that they represent a majority of new infections.
The CDC has begun classifying variants of COVID-19 found in the United States into three separate categories: Variants of Interest, Variants of Concern, and Variants of High Consequence. These classifications are informed by characteristics of each variant, such as their ability to evade diagnostic testing, their ability to infect people who have been vaccinated, greater transmissibility, increased disease severity and mortality, and resistance to treatment. Currently, there are several Variants of Interest and Variants of Concern, while no Variants of High Consequence have yet been identified. For more information about COVID-19 variants, review the CDC’s Variants and Genomic Surveillance page.
Do you have additional questions about COVID-19? Check out our COVID-19 FAQ page.
Looking for more information on how to protect yourself during the coronavirus pandemic? Review our COVID-19 Safety Guide to learn more.