What is coronavirus and what precautions should people be taking?

An outbreak of hundreds of cases of coronavirus has resulted in at least 132 deaths, more than 6,000 cases and travel restrictions that are affecting millions of people in China.

The fifth case of the respiratory illness in the United States was confirmed in Arizona on Sunday. Other cases, all among travelers from China, were reported in California, Illinois and Washington state.

There are dozens of cases under investigation. What can people do to stay healthy?

WHAT IS CORONAVIRUS?

Human coronaviruses are common throughout the world, causing respiratory illnesses that result in runny noses, sore throats and coughs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is named for nobs that protrude from its surface, making it resemble a crown, an expert said.

The virus family includes the common cold, as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS, which spread to dozens of countries, sickening more than 8,000 and killing 774 people before it was contained in 2003, according to the CDC. Also in the virus family is MERS, a respiratory illness that emerged in 2012 and is associated with a high mortality rate.

Now, scientists have identified a new coronavirus that was first confirmed in Wuhan, China. It can cause a more severe illness than a typical cold, according to Michael Ison, a professor of infectious diseases and organ transplantation at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.

To try to contain the outbreak, the Chinese government has ordered a travel lockdown in central China after about 260 cases were identified in Wuhan. More than 2,000 have been infected globally, according to a World Health Organization report.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

The virus can result in a runny nose, sore throat and cough, experts say. It can develop into a fever and lung infection that causes shortness of breath. People should see a doctor if they experience a worsening cough, experts said.

“The illness can start like a regular cold. You feel crummy,” Ison said.

Dr. Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Southwestern, said patients have presented with fever, malaise and a dry cough.

Ison said there is a polymerase chain reaction test, or PCR test, available to identify the virus, but it is currently only available at the CDC. Officials expect labs run by state health departments, to be able to test people soon.

So far, the fatality rate from the new virus is relatively low and usually confined to the elderly or those with underlying medical condition, Ison said, but he noted that could change as more cases emerge.

HOW LIKELY ARE YOU TO GET IT?

Experts say the likelihood of Americans who haven’t recently traveled to China contracting the new virus is relatively low.

“We know how to control these viruses,” Perl said, though still cautioning that there is a lot scientists don’t yet know about the new virus. “There are control measures that people might find invasive, but really, we can control this.”

The CDC said this week that screening of travelers has expanded to 20 airports.

Doctors remind people that it’s flu season, and they should be taking precautions to avoid contracting a wide variety of illnesses.

“Everyone is fixated on the coronavirus but there is a relatively low number of cases,” Ison said. “There have been thousands of deaths already this year of influenza.”

WHAT PRECAUTIONS CAN YOU TAKE?

Experts remind people to make sure they are frequently washing their hands and not going to work if they start to show symptoms — not just to ward off the new coronavirus, but also the more common flu and other viruses.

“Use of just simple masks reduces transmission,” Perl said.

Doctors say it’s not too late to get a flu shot to ward off influenza, though it would not protect people from the new strain of coronavirus.

There are no approved treatments for the new coronavirus, Ison said. It is either cleared by the patient’s immune system and they recover, or the patient dies of the infection.

“If they can continue doing simple things … that’s going to help,” Perl said.

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