Editor’s note: Weekly updates can now be found here.  

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, short for coronavirus disease 2019, is an infection caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). SARS-CoV-2 is a newly identified pathogen that has not previously been seen in humans and is highly contagious. Though it belongs to the same category of viruses as SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a different strain with its own characteristics. 

COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, and the outbreak has spread quickly across the world, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare COVID-19 a pandemic.

How does COVID-19 spread?

Because COVID-19 is a new virus, nobody has prior immunity to it, meaning the entire human population is prone to infection.

It primarily spreads via respiratory droplets when people cough or sneeze. Scientists have yet to understand how easily and sustainably the disease can spread among people. Based on available evidence, researchers do not think airborne spread is a major transmission route

Individuals over age 60 are at the highest risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19, while children do not seem to be at a higher risk than adults.

There are currently no reports about how susceptible pregnant women may be to COVID-19 or about transmission of the virus through breast milk.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms of COVID-19 begin two to 14 days after exposure. They include fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Other symptoms include sputum production, shortness of breath, sore throat, headache, myalgia (muscle pain) or arthralgia (joint pain), chills, vomiting, and nasal congestion. Less frequent symptoms include diarrhea, hemoptysis (coughing up blood from the respiratory tract), and conjunctival congestion.

Most of these symptoms are usually mild, and about 80% of people who get the virus will typically recover without needing any special treatment. However, about 1 in 6 patients become seriously ill and develop breathing difficulties.

What general preventive measures should people take?

The following simple preventive measures can help minimize the spread of COVID-19: 

  • Wash your hands often with soap, lathering both the front and the back of the hands and fingers for at least 15 to 20 seconds. If soap is not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control produced a poster detailing effective handwashing.
  • Avoid close contact with someone who is ill. (Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet, or 1.8 meters).
  • Stay at home if you are sick.
  • Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze and dispose of it properly afterward.
  • Disinfect surfaces and objects you touch frequently. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that people wear face masks in public settings, with some exceptions for preexisting conditions. 

What extra precautions should IBD patients take?

Patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may need treatment with immunosuppressants, which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases. This is because these medications weaken the immune system. Patients on these therapies should, therefore, take extra precautions to minimize the risk of getting COVID-19.

In addition to the general preventive measures listed above, they should: 

  • Stock up on necessary medications and supplies that can last for a few weeks.
  • Avoid crowds and non-essential travel.
  • Stay at home as much as possible.

Patients are not advised to stop their current medications unless specifically instructed to do so by their physicians. Stopping these medications can result in a disease flare, which itself may increase the chances of picking up an infection. It is still not clear how exactly these medications affect COVID-19 infections; the decision lies with a specialist healthcare provider.

Recommendations from experts on managing IBD treatment during the pandemic were recently published in the journal Gastroenterology.

Advice for family members and caregivers

Family members and caregivers of people with IBD should take appropriate precautions and take extra care to avoid bringing COVID-19 home. They should constantly monitor patients and stock medicines and other necessary supplies that can last for several weeks. Storing extra non-perishable food can help minimize trips to the grocery store.  

People who show symptoms of COVID-19 should avoid visiting their family members in nursing homes or other places until the self-isolation period is complete.

What should sick individuals do?

If symptoms are present and a COVID-19 diagnosis is confirmed, patients should follow these steps to prevent the spread of the infection:

  • Stay at home, preferably in a separate room not shared with others, and isolate themselves, with the exception of getting medical care.
  • Avoid public areas and public transport.
  • Limit contact with pets and animals.
  • Avoid sharing personal items.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissues and dispose of them properly.
  • Sanitize hands regularly. 
  • Disinfect surfaces such as phones, keyboards, toilets, and tables.

People should call ahead before visiting the hospital for an appointment. This way, the hospital can take necessary steps to prevent the spread of the infection.

What tests are available?  

Many tests for the detection of COVID-19 have been made available under the FDA’s emergency use authorization, including rapid tests that are being developed to detect the presence of the virus within minutes.

The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics provides an up-to-date list of different manual and automated tests that are available or currently in development.

Is there a treatment?

There are currently no vaccines available for human coronaviruses including COVID-19. This makes the prevention and containment of the virus very important.

Oxygen therapy is the major treatment intervention for patients with severe disease. Mechanical ventilation may be necessary in cases of respiratory failure.

Are there new treatments in the pipeline?

Several clinical trials have been launched or are being planned to test a variety of potential treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. A complete list of all ongoing clinical trials pertaining to the virus is available here.

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IBD News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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Özge has a MSc. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Leicester and a PhD in Developmental Biology from Queen Mary University of London. She worked as a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the University of Leicester for six years in the field of Behavioural Neurology before moving into science communication. She worked as the Research Communication Officer at a London based charity for almost two years.