Coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses that includes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. For this reason, some people call the virus coronavirus.

This article explores what the word coronavirus means, where the different terms come from, and why COVID-19 is different from other coronavirus diseases.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

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Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that have crown-like thorns on their surface. The Latin word for crown is coronam.

There are many types of coronavirus, including:

In 2019, scientists identified a novel coronavirus. They named it severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2 for short.

COVID-19 is the name of the disease that SARS-CoV-2 causes. It is an abbreviation of coronavirus disease 2019.

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially announced this name in February 2020, in partnership with the Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 symptoms include:

There are several types of coronavirus that affect humans. However, while some are mild and unlikely to cause severe illness, SARS-CoV-2 can be life-threatening.

SARS-CoV-2 also appears to spread more easily from person to person than other types of coronavirus, including SARS-CoV, which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak in China and other countries.

Like COVID-19, influenza, or flu, is a respiratory illness that can cause serious complications. Both illnesses spread via tiny droplets that enter the air when someone coughs, talks, or sneezes. If other people inhale these droplets, the virus can multiply rapidly in their body, creating an infection.

However, while the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, the viruses that cause these conditions are different in several ways. The CDC contrast their features as below:

Symptom onsetsymptoms take 1–4 days to developsymptoms typically take 5 days to develop, but can take between 2–14 days
Transmission periodpeople with flu are contagious for 1 day before symptoms develop, and 3–7 days afterwardpeople with COVID-19 are contagious 2 days before symptoms develop, and at least 10 days afterward
How it spreadsspreads through close contactspreads through close contact, but more efficiently than flu to larger numbers of people
Risk for childrenhigher risk for complications in childrenlower risk for complications in otherwise healthy children, though some develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a rare but serious condition
Treatmentantiviral medications can help reduce the durationno treatment available, though research is ongoing
Vaccinationannual flu vaccination can protect against some strainsno vaccine available

Although there are currently no agreed-upon medications or vaccines for COVID-19, scientists are testing several potential treatments, including remdesivir and dexamethasone. As of August 2020, 172 countries are attempting to develop and distribute a vaccine.

Because SARS-CoV-2 spreads so easily, prevention is crucial to stop people from contracting COVID-19. This is important to protect at-risk groups, such as:

  • older adults
  • people with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes
  • obesity

Early in the pandemic, scientists predicted that people with compromised immune systems would also be at risk for severe illness. However, a large study found that rates of COVID-19 were not significantly higher among veterans with HIV compared to those without HIV.

It is possible to spread SARS-CoV-2 even if people show no symptoms. This means that even if someone feels fine, they still need to take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.

Physical distancing

Physical distancing involves avoiding close contact with others. The CDC recommend:

  • staying 2 meters (6 feet) apart from other people
  • staying at home as much as possible
  • avoiding crowded places where physical distancing is not possible


The hands come into contact with many surfaces. As viruses can live on surfaces, it is important to wash hands regularly when:

  • being in a public place
  • touching the nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • preparing or eating food
  • touching the face or eyes
  • using a restroom or changing a diaper
  • being in contact with someone who is ill
  • touching animals
  • handling a face mask

To thoroughly wash hands, a person should use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If running water is not available, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.

Avoid touching the eyes, nose, mouth, or face with unwashed hands. People should also wear disposable gloves while caring for someone who is sick.

Face masks

The CDC advise wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose completely when in a public space, or around people who are not in a person’s support bubble.

People should always cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or by aiming into the nook of the elbow. They can dispose of tissues and soiled single-use masks in the designated garbage.

A person can clean reusable masks in a washing machine with laundry detergent on the highest setting for the fabric, or by hand using a bleach solution. The bleach should contain 5.25–8.25% sodium hypochlorite.

To handwash a mask:

  1. add 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of room temperature water
  2. soak the mask for 5 minutes
  3. discard the solution and thoroughly rinse the mask before drying

Clean and disinfect

It is important to regularly clean and disinfect objects that people often touch, such as:

  • tables
  • countertops
  • handles
  • light switches
  • phones
  • keyboards
  • toilets
  • faucets
  • sinks

Monitor for symptoms

People should watch for symptoms such as a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. If a person experiences these, they should take their temperature if possible.

A person should not measure their body temperature within 30 minutes of exercise, or after taking a temperature-lowering medication, such as acetaminophen.

It is worth noting not everyone who develops COVID-19 will get all of these symptoms. If they experience any of the potential signs of COVID-19, they should call a medical professional for advice.

If someone develops possible COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay at home. They should also avoid public spaces and not use public transport. If possible, they need to remain in a separate room in the home, away from other people or pets.

A person with symptoms should call a doctor via phone if possible. They should not visit a medical facility without calling ahead first, as this could expose other people to the virus. A doctor can provide advice on what to do next.

Most people with COVID-19 develop mild symptoms and recover on their own. However, if a person develops the following symptoms, they should seek emergency medical care:

  • confusion
  • bluish lips, face, or skin
  • trouble breathing
  • continuous pain or pressure in the chest
  • inability to wake up or stay awake

When calling for emergency help, be sure to communicate the possibility of COVID-19, so medical professionals and staff can take proper precautions.

People refer to the virus that causes COVID-19 as coronavirus, as this is the name of the family of viruses in which it belongs.

While SARS-CoV-2 has similarities to other coronaviruses, it can cause a wider range of symptoms, and in some cases, severe or fatal illness. Preventing the spread is essential to protect vulnerable groups.