Editor's Note: This story was most recently updated March 26, 2020. For the latest updates on the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, see our news coverage.
Feb. 28, 2020 -- With cases in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, coronavirus (and COVID-19, the disease it causes) is spreading rapidly in the United States. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself right now:
Dos and Don’ts for Everyone
DO wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, several times a day. Use soap and water or a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol:
DON’T touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you have somehow come into contact with the virus, touching your face can help it enter your body.
DO learn the symptoms, which are similar to flu and may not emerge until 14 days after exposure:
- Shortness of breath
Most cases do not start with a runny nose.
DON’T wear a mask unless you’re sick. Masks help protect others from catching the virus, but wearing one when you’re healthy won’t do much. Demand has been so high in the U.S. that health care workeres are improvising. Leave the masks for people who really need them, like the sick or health care professionals.
DO consider taking extra precautions and staying out of public places if you’re over 60 years old, or have a condition, as you have a higher risk of developing the disease. Note that as of now, the highest-risk groups appear to be seniors and people with preexisting conditions like heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
DON’T assume young people won’t get gravely ill or even die. As of March 16, 38% of all hospitalizations were of people 20-to-54 years old.
DO assume you’ve been exposed, if you live in an area with a lot of community transmission. That’s what New Yorkers have been told.
DON’T travel if you have a fever. If you get sick on flight, tell crew immediately. When you get home, contact a health professional.
DO reconsider travel to affected areas of the U.S., especially if you have underlying conditions. And if you live in an area with widespread COVID-19, you should probably stay put -- you may be carrying the virus yourself. If you're thinking about leaving the country, know that the CDC advises against non-essential travel to most of Europe, the UK and Ireland, China and Iran. For people in a higher-risk group -- seniors and people with preexisting conditions -- the agency suggests postponing all nonessential travel. It also suggests everyone avoid cruises. Find the latest advisories here.
DON’T panic. Public health officials still say the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 is low, but your risk level is likely to rise as the virus spreads across the country. Taking proper precautions -- wash your hands! -- and making preparations are the best things you can do.
DO get ready to hunker down. The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. If someone in your home gets sick, local authorities may want you to be quarantined for up to 14 days. Make sure you have enough shelf-stable food to last that long, as well as prescription medications for anyone in the family, other health supplies such as over-the-counter pain relievers, and disinfectants to clean household surfaces.
A government web site also suggests keeping a 2-week supply of food and water in the case of a pandemic and having copies of electronic health records.
DO practice “social distancing”: Stay 3- to 6-feet away from other people, especially if they're coughing or sneezing. Avoid gatherings of more than 10 people -- the government has ordered them canceled nationwide anyway -- and crowds in poorly-ventilated spaces.
DON’T skip the flu shot. The symptoms of COVID-19 and flu overlap enough that it can complicate diagnosis. If you’ve had a flu shot, you’re less likely to catch the flu or have a case serious enough to require treatment.
DO prioritize your health. Now is not the time to burn the candle at both ends, skip workouts, or ignore a healthy diet—that can weaken your immune system. Take care of your mental health, too -- we're living in stressful times.
DON’T go to the doctor unless it’s urgent. And reschedule your dental cleaning. The CDC is urging all health care professionals to focus on emergency treatments now.
DO keep taking blood pressure medications. The idea that they may make you more susceptible to the virus is just a theory.
DO check in on high-risk neighbors: older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions. Monitor their food and medical supplies, and make sure they have people or organizations who can help if they get sick. If you suspect you’ve been exposed already, maintain at least 6 feet of distance.
DON’T avoid toys or products from Asia. Although the virus can live on surfaces for hours and possibly several days, it’s unlikely to survive the process of being moved from place to place in different temperatures and conditions.
DO check in on high-risk neighbors: older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions. Monitor their food and medical supplies, and make sure they have people or organizations who can help if they get sick.
Dos and Don’ts When You Don’t Feel Well
DO seek help early if you have a fever, cough, and a hard time breathing. But don’t just drop into the nearest urgent care clinic. Call your doctor to find out the protocol first, to make sure you won’t spread the disease to others.
DON’T go out except to see your doctor, after calling first. And if you do have to go out, avoid public transportation, taxis, and ride-sharing.
DO cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or a tissue, and dispose of the tissue immediately in a covered bin. (You should be doing this whether or not you suspect COVID-19 -- you don’t want to spread a common cold, either.)
DON’T hang out with your family or pets if you suspect you have the virus. In order to protect them, eat and sleep separately from them, try to stay in one room, and use a separate bathroom if possible. Yes, pets are included in the recommendations.The CDC says experts don’t know for sure whether pets can catch it.
DO wear a mask properly around others if you suspect you may have the virus -- the mask itself can be a source of infection if you don’t follow the guidelines. The World Health Organization has videos on when and how to use a mask.
DON’T reach for antibiotics. If you happen to have some lying around from a previous illness, you may be tempted. But antibiotics work only on illnesses caused by bacteria, and the coronavirus is -- you guessed it -- a virus.
DO make sure someone in your home knows how to clean properly. Studies suggest that coronaviruses can live on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. To reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19, wear disposable gloves to clean surfaces regularly with soap and water, followed by a disinfectant to kill the virus. Effective options include a bleach solution of 5 tablespoons per gallon/4 teaspoons per quart of water, solutions with at least 70% alcohol, or use this tool to find EPA-approved items.
Dos and Don’ts When You’re Caring for Someone Who May Have It
DO treat the sickness. Keep the sick person hydrated with plenty of fluids, and use over-the-counter medications for individual symptoms.
DON’T hesitate to seek help immediately if someone in your home is experiencing these emergency warning signs:
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest.
- New confusion or inability to arouse.
- Bluish lips or face.
DO make sure to clean frequently-touched surfaces properly. Studies suggest that coronaviruses can live on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. To reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19, wear disposable gloves to clean surfaces in shared spaces daily, including tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, and sinks. Use soap and water, followed by a disinfectant to kill the virus. Effective options include a bleach solution of 5 tablespoons per gallon/4 teaspoons per quart of water and solutions with at least 70% alcohol.
DON’T share household items like dishes and glasses -- and definitely not bedding and towels. They should be washed thoroughly before being used again.
DO open a window or use an air conditioner or fan in shared spaces, weather permitting. This will maintain good airflow. Because the virus may be airborne, it could help protect the other members of your household.
DON’T go near seniors or those at higher risk for severe illness. You may be able to transmit the virus even if you feel fine. Now is not the time to pay a visit to grandma, or your friend with asthma.
DO keep the sick person home until all three of these things have happened:
- They’ve been fever-free for 72 hours, without using medicine that reduces fever.
- Their other symptoms have improved – no more coughing or shortness of breath.
- It’s been at least 7 days since they first noticed symptoms.
WebMD senior health writer Brenda Goodman contributed to this report.