Q: What are coronaviruses?
A: Coronaviruses are common viruses that most people get some time in their lives. Human coronaviruses usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold.
Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface. There are four main sub-groupings of coronaviruses, known as alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.
Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-1960s. The six coronaviruses that can infect people are: alpha coronaviruses 229E and NL63, and beta coronaviruses OC43, HKU1, SARS-CoV (the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS), and MERS-CoV (the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS).
There are many coronaviruses that naturally infect animals. Most of these usually infect only one animal species or, at most, a small number of closely related species, but not people. However, SARS-CoV can infect people and animals, including monkeys, Himalayan palm civets, raccoon dogs, cats, dogs, and rodents. MERS-CoV has also been found to infect people and animals, including camels.
Q: How common are human coronavirus infections?
A: People around the world commonly get infected with human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1. Two exceptions are SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.
SARS-CoV was first recognized in China in November 2002. It caused a worldwide outbreak with 8,098 probable cases including 774 deaths from 2002 to 2003. Since 2004, there have not been any known cases of SARS-CoV infection reported anywhere in the world. More about SARS-CoV.
MERS-CoV was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It has since caused illness in people from dozens of other countries. All cases to date have been linked to countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula. CDC continues to closely monitor the MERS situation globally and work with partners to better understand the risks of this virus, including the source, how it spreads, and how infections might be prevented. More about MERS-CoV.
Q: Who can get infected?
A: Most people will get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime. Young children are most likely to get infected. However, people can have multiple infections in their lifetime.
Q: How do I get infected?
A: The ways that common human coronaviruses spread have not been studied very much. However, it is likely that human coronaviruses spread from an infected person to others through—
- the air by coughing and sneezing
- close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
These viruses may also spread by touching contaminated objects or surfaces then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Q: When can I get infected?
A: In the United States, people usually get infected with common human coronaviruses in the fall and winter. However, you can get infected at any time of the year.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Common human coronaviruses usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, that last for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include runny nose, cough, sore throat, and fever. These viruses can sometimes cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia. This is more common in people with cardiopulmonary disease or compromised immune systems, or the elderly.
Q: How can I protect myself?
A: There are currently no vaccines available to protect you against human coronavirus infection. You may be able to reduce your risk of infection by doing the following—
- wash your hands often with soap and water
- avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- avoid close contact with people who are sick
For information about hand washing, see CDC’s Clean Hands Save Lives!
Q: What should I do if I get sick?
A: If you have cold-like symptoms, you can help protect others by doing the following—
- stay home while you are sick
- avoid close contact with others
- cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands
- clean and disinflect objects and surfaces
Q: How do I get diagnosed?
A: Your healthcare provider can order laboratory tests on your blood or nose/throat swabs to confirm whether your illness is caused by a common human coronavirus. However, these tests are not used very often because people usually have mild illness. Also, testing may be limited to a few specialized laboratories.
Q: Are there treatments?
A: There are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses.
Most people with common human coronavirus illness will recover on their own. However, you can be do some things to relieve your symptoms—
- take pain and fever medications (Caution: Aspirin should not be given to children)
- use a room humidifier or take a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
If you are sick, you should —
- drink plenty of liquids
- stay home and rest
If you are concerned about your symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider.
- Coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV (Red Book, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2012)
- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), CDC
- Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), WHO
- Page last reviewed: August 22, 2016
- Page last updated: August 22, 2016
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