Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause respiratory tract illnesses. In most cases, a coronavirus causes a mild respiratory tract infection. Coronaviruses that cause more severe, in some cases even life-threatening infections, include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and the novel COVID-19, causing the current epidemic which started in China.
What are the symptoms caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus?
The most common symptoms of a coronavirus infection are very similar to those of other, milder respiratory tract infections: fever, cough, muscle aches and pains and tiredness.
High fever, shortness of breath and a bad cough may indicate that the coronavirus has caused viral pneumonia. The most serious cases of the illness have usually involved viral pneumonia.
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For whom is the coronavirus dangerous?
Like other types of pneumonia, the viral pneumonia caused by the coronavirus is dangerous particularly if the infected person has a pre-existing medical condition, such as diabetes, if not well controlled, or a heart or lung disease.
Deaths caused by the coronavirus have usually affected elderly people who suffer from other underlying medical conditions. These may affect the person’s immunity against the coronavirus infection and also the body’s ability to react to the infection.
Known groups at risk of developing severe illness:
Based upon available information to date, people aged 70 and over have a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
In addition, illnesses that significantly impair the functioning of the lungs or heart, or weaken the immune system, particularly in older people, may involve a higher risk of a serious coronavirus infection. These include:
- Severe heart conditions
- Lung disease if not well controlled
- Diabetes with associated organ damage
- Chronic liver or renal failure
- An immune weakening disease, including leukemia or lymphoma, for which the patient is receiving active chemotherapy treatment (not maintenance therapy)
- Medication that severely weakens immunity (including high doses of corticosteroids)
If necessary, the attending physician will assess whether a person’s primary disease is so severe that the person is at risk of contracting a severe coronavirus infection. The physician will also decide whether medication should be changed.
Factors which may increase health risks from the coronavirus include severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] >40) and daily smoking, which generally impair lung function. This is an excellent opportunity to stop smoking (in Finnish).
The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets and through contact
At present, the coronavirus is known to spread through respiratory droplets and through contact.
When an infected person coughs or sneezes, viruses spread easily into the immediate surroundings, making direct transmission through droplets possible. Coughing or sneezing allows the virus to spread easily onto surfaces close by, either directly or, for example, when people sneeze into their hands and then touch surfaces. When healthy people later touch the same surfaces and then their faces, the virus is transmitted.
No exact information is available of how long the virus can survive on surfaces and infect people, but that time is estimated to be fairly short in daily life and varying temperatures, probably not many days.
How can infections be prevented?
Due to the transmission methods, the course of the epidemic can be slowed down through good hand hygiene and restricting close contact between people.
It is highly likely that most people in a population will contract the coronavirus infection, regardless of how well the various restrictive measures succeed. Slowing down the spread of the epidemic is important, however, to lower the peak of infections and prevent the most severe cases of the illness occurring at the same time as they are spread over a longer period of time. This ensures the capacity of the health care system to treat the seriously ill.
Sources: At Mehiläinen, we are actively monitoring both Finnish and foreign expert statements regarding the current situation with the coronavirus. In addition, for this article we interviewed Tero Yli-Kyyny, Head Surgeon at Mehiläinen hospitals nationwide, and Iiro Heikkilä, Medical Director at Mehiläinen medical clinics.
Text updated on 26 March 2020.