You’ve likely read a lot about the coronavirus or talked about it with friends or co-workers. It’s been on almost every major news outlet website, newspaper or TV station in the last few months. The coronavirus was first detected in China, and it’s now been detected in about 60 locations internationally, including the U.S., according to the Centers and Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some research has even shown that it has roots dating back as early as the 1960s.

But this past January, the CDC responded to an outbreak of a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus. The virus was named “SARS-CoV-2,” and the disease it causes was named “coronavirus disease 2019,” abbreviated “COVID-19.” The World Health Organization also declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” At press time, the death toll from the coronavirus was at six people in the U.S., with the number of identified U.S. cases of COVID-19 at nearly 100.

With the CDC claiming that the coronavirus is a matter of when and not whether it begins to spread at a community level in the U.S., families have to know how they should react and what they can do to be prepared and protect themselves. We’ll help you understand what COVID-19 is, what the symptoms are and how severe they are, and why public health officials are saying it could be dangerous to our health.

Detecting the disease

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different animals, including bats, snakes, camels, cattle and cats, according to the CDC. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect humans and then spread between humans.

Some international destinations now have apparent community spread with the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the CDC. This means that some people were infected and were not sure how or where they became infected.

“Coronaviruses are zoonotic, as they can be transmitted from animal to people,” says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a practicing family physician based in Phoenix. “For COVID-19, scientists are currently doing research to determine exactly where it started. There is a theory it was transmitted from bats; however, bats could have passed it to another animal that passed it to humans.”

Dr. Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, chief medical officer at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., says the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China, and was linked to a live animal market.

“Because coronaviruses are zoonotic, they first develop in animals — not definitively linked to a specific animal,” McDonald-Pinkett says, adding that a person must come into close contact with an animal carrying the infection. “Once that person has the virus, it can be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets that move through the air into your lungs.”

Like a cold, the coronavirus can present with a fever or cough, according to Bhuyan.

“Most people actually have mild symptoms. However, the symptoms can be more severe and can involve breathing trouble and shortness of breath. It can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and even death,” Bhuyan says.

McDonald-Pinkett adds that symptoms for the novel coronavirus are similar to the symptoms of other upper respiratory infections.

“These can include a combination of high fever, sore throat, coughing and a shortness of breath,” she says. “A key difference is humans over the course of many years have naturally built up antibodies to the seasonal flu, and scientists have been able to develop annual vaccines to fight these infections.”

McDonald-Pinkett adds that, to date, doctors and health officials have learned that COVID-19 can cause more severe symptoms quicker that often progress to pneumonia or even death.

Protecting you and your family

It’s important to note that most coronaviruses are not dangerous. Common human coronaviruses, including types 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1, usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, such as the common cold, according to the CDC. It’s common for many people to get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point during their lives. However, outbreaks of novel virus infections among people can be a public health concern.

A report by the WHO suggests that older men seem to be more susceptible to the coronavirus, McDonald-Pinkett says.

“The report also states that the median age of people testing positive for the coronavirus is 45 years, with two-thirds of those individuals being male. As of now, there is no vaccine or specific treatment for the virus,” McDonald-Pinkett says.

Sean Beckmann, an assistant professor of biology at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, says some estimates for a vaccine range from April to early 2021.

“The best prevention for the virus is to avoid travel to the area where it is common, China, and to take normal precautions that you would take against the cold and flu — cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, wash surfaces, clean quickly if someone coughs or sneezes on you,” he says. “Likewise, if you have good reason to suspect you have been exposed to the virus and you begin to feel ill, seek out a doctor’s help quickly.”

As for treatment, Beckmann says, research is underway for the best antiviral options to treat this virus, but no specific treatment has been discovered yet.

“Instead, treatment has focused on symptoms — fever, cough, pneumonia, etc. — and supportive therapy where necessary,” he says.

According to McDonald-Pinkett, the person-to-person spread of the coronavirus is of major concern because of the mounting deaths tolls overseas.

“Researchers do not know the difference between a lethal infection and one that feels only like a bad cold,” she says. “The differences between the two may have something to do with the interaction between the virus and an individual’s immune system, which can be influenced by age, gender, genetics and existing medical conditions.”

People can minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19 in several ways, Bhuyan says.

“One is to wash your hands frequently,” she says. “Don’t go to work or use public transportation or be in a crowded area if you are sick. This is a great rule of thumb for any illness! Wearing a mask can also limit the likelihood of inhaling droplets.”

McDonald-Pinkett says people should avoid touching their eyes and mouth, as well as coming into contact with others who are sick.

“Try to restrict activities where you are sharing items — food, drink, etc. — with others,” she says.

For travelers, the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed altogether, McDonald-Pinkett says.

“The CDC advises Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to mainland China due to the high number of cases that have been confirmed there,” she says, adding that any person is at a high risk for developing the coronavirus but more so if you’ve come into contact with someone else who is carrying it.

“Fortunately, we have not treated anyone with the coronavirus,” she adds. “However, we are taking all of the necessary precautions to educate and inform our staff, patients and guests with tips and information on how to prevent catching and spreading the virus.”