One of the worst symptoms of any plague is uncertainty—who it will strike, when it will end, why it began. Merely understanding a pandemic does not stop it, but an informed public can help curb its impact and slow its spread. It can also provide a certain ease of mind in a decidedly uneasy time. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 pandemic from TIME’s readers, along with the best and most current answers science can provide.
A note about our sourcing: While there are many, many studies underway investigating COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-19, the novel coronavirus that causes the illness, it is still essentially brand new to science. As a result, while we’ve drawn primarily on peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals, we have cited some yet-to-be-published research into important aspects of COVID-19 when appropriate.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Who’s most at risk for COVID-19?
Are children at risk?
How long does COVID-19 last?
How long is COVID-19 infectious in people?
Can I get COVID-19 and the seasonal flu or common cold at the same time?
What’s the treatment for COVID-19?
How does a COVID-19 test work?
Should I get tested?
How does COVID-19 spread?
Is COVID-19 airborne?
Is there any difference between being indoors or outdoors when it comes to transmission?
Do masks work for preventing the spread of COVID-19?
How long does the COVID-19 virus survive on surfaces?
Is there any risk of the COVID-19 virus living on mail & packages?
Is there any risk with food delivery services?
Does rain wash away the COVID-19 virus?
What should I do to shop safely?
Should I worry about my clothes after I’ve been outside?
Can I get COVID-19 more than once?
If I get COVID-19 and recover, am I immune and safe to be around/help out older family and neighbors?
I’ve been social distancing for two weeks. When is it safe for me to go see family?
Can my dog or cat get COVID-19?
Can the COVID-19 virus live on my pet’s fur?
Do flies, mosquitoes, or other insects carry or transmit the virus?
Can cleaning products kill the COVID-19 virus?
Does it matter what type of soap I use to wash my hands?
What are the practices for doing laundry in a shared/public laundry room?
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Studies have shown that while some COVID-19 patients get only very mild symptoms or none at all, some can develop severe pneumonia and other health issues. A World Health Organization report from February found that around 80% of patients with laboratory confirmed cases “have mild disease and recover.” Researchers are not certain how many people infected with the virus are nearly or entirely asymptomatic. “There is not a single reliable study to determine the number of [asymptomatic sufferers],” says a metastudy conducted by scientists from Oxford University, and published online on April 6. “It is likely we will only learn the true extent once population-based antibody testing is undertaken,” write the study authors. (The metastudy, which looked at 21 earlier studies from around the world, has not been peer-reviewed.) The only way to know for sure if you are infected with SARS-CoV-19, the virus that causes COVID-19, is to get tested.
According to a study of nearly 56,000 laboratory confirmed cases cited in the WHO report, the most common symptom, experienced by 88% of confirmed patients, is a fever. The other most common symptoms according to that study are, in descending order:
- Dry cough (68%)
- Fatigue (38%)
- Coughing up sputum/mucus production (33%)
- Shortness of breath (19%)
- Joint or muscle pain (15%)
- Sore throat (14%)
- Headache (14%)
- Chills (11%)
- Nausea or vomiting (5%)
- Nasal congestion (5%)
- Diarrhea (3%)
- Coughing up blood (1%)
- Eye discharge (1%)
One thing missing from this list is anosmia, or loss of sense of smell. Anecdotal reports suggest that people with milder cases of the disease could have telltale symptoms like the loss of their sense of smell and/or taste, however the WHO has not yet added those symptoms to its official list, as the data are not yet strong enough. But an analysis of a COVID-19 symptom-tracking app in the U.K. shows 59% of the 579 users who had tested positive for the disease reported a loss of smell and taste, compared to 18% who did not have the disease. And in April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its list of possible symptoms of COVID-19 to include “new loss of taste or smell” among them. —Billy Perrigo.