Go to Content Go to Navigation Go to Navigation Go to Site Search Homepage

What is Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses have always been around, causing mild illnesses like the common cold. Today's pandemic is caused by the new or “novel” coronavirus — called COVID-19 —  and it's a serious respiratory disease that can cause coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Many people who get COVID-19 will only have mild symptoms (or no symptoms at all). But up to 1 out of 5 people who get it will become very sick and need to go to the hospital. Some people with COVID-19 die. People who are pregnant or have certain medical conditions are more likely to get severely sick from COVID-19.

How do you get COVID-19? 

COVID-19 is highly contagious — it spreads very easily between people. You get COVID-19 from other people who have the virus. It spreads through spit and mucus — usually through tiny, often invisible, liquid droplets that come out of your nose and mouth when you cough, sneeze, talk, sing, shout, or breathe.

People can easily spread COVID-19 when they’re sick and showing symptoms, like fever and cough. But people with COVID-19 who don’t have symptoms (and therefore may not know they have the virus) can also spread it to other people. So just because someone feels fine doesn’t mean they don’t have COVID-19 or can’t get other people sick. COVID-19 is new, and scientists are still trying to learn more about how it spreads and why it makes some people sicker than others.

The main way the virus spreads is by being close to other people. If you’re within 6 feet of a person who has COVID-19 infected droplets from their breath can get inside your nose or mouth and make you sick. That’s why it’s important to stay at least 6 feet away from people when you leave the house, and wear tight-fitting face masks while you’re out. Masks help protect you and others around you from getting sick.  It’s best to wear a multi-layer fabric mask that fits snugly against your face, or a disposable surgical mask underneath a fabric mask. Try to make a tight seal so air can’t get in or out around the edges of your mask. Read more about how to use face masks, and how to get the best protection from your masks.

COVID-19 can also sometimes spread by airborne transmission in indoor spaces — this means that you may be able to get COVID-19 from small droplets and particles that can stay in the air for hours, even if the infected person is more than 6 feet away or has already left the room. Research is showing that airborne transmission happens inside when there’s not enough  ventilation (like open windows, fans, or air filtration systems), sometimes when people are breathing heavily (like while singing or exercising). When there’s a lot of infected droplets in the air, the virus can spread to others. That’s why it’s safest to avoid being inside with people who don’t live in your household, and to stay away from inside places where people are likely to be talking, shouting, singing, or breathing heavily.

It also may be possible to get COVID-19 if you touch things — like a doorknob, lightswitch, or table — that have the virus on them, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Scientists don’t think this is a common way the virus spreads, but it’s still important to wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and disinfect surfaces that you touch a lot (like your phone).

There’s no evidence to show that COVID-19 is spread in food. But it’s important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water especially before cooking and eating, to avoid getting germs from your hands into your mouth.

COVID-19 has been found in semen (cum), but it’s not clear whether the virus can spread from one person to another through semen. But COVID-19 does spread easily between people when they’re within about 6 feet of each other, or sharing other body fluids like saliva (spit). So it’s very easy to get COVID-19 if you have in-person sexual contact with someone who has it. Learn more about COVID-19 and sexual health.

Viruses don’t discriminate, and it’s dangerous and harmful to blame COVID-19 on people of a particular  race, ethnicity, immigration status, or income level. Anybody can get COVID-19 if they come in contact with the virus. But some communities have been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic because of structural racism, discrimination, and other inequities that can cause underlying health conditions, create barriers to health care, and increase the chances  of being exposed COVID-19. This has led to higher rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalization, and death in Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities than in white people. No matter your identity, it’s important to do what you can to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — not only to protect yourself, but also others in your community.

How do I know if I have COVID-19?

Not everyone who gets COVID-19 has symptoms. For some, the symptoms are mild. But others can get very sick, may need to go to the hospital, and could die. COVID-19 symptoms may start showing up anywhere between 2-14 days after you’ve had contact with the virus.

Some symptoms of COVID-19 are:

  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or having a hard time breathing

  • Fatigue (feeling unusually tired or run down)

  • Loss of smell or taste that’s new for you

  • Sore throat

  • Muscle pain or body aches

  • Headache

  • Runny nose or congestion (feeling stuffed up)

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

The only way to know for sure if you have COVID-19 is to get tested. Tests are most important for people with symptoms of COVID-19, or people who have been in close contact (within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more) with someone who has COVID-19.  If you do get a COVID-19 test, try to stay home (self-quarantine) until you get your test results, and follow your nurse or doctor’s instructions.

The best thing to do if you’re wondering if you should get tested for COVID-19 is call your doctor or other health care provider and ask. You can get more information on testing in your area from your state or local health departmentRead more about COVID-19 testing

What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

If you think you may have COVID-19, call a doctor to find out if you need medical treatment, even if you don’t have a doctor who you see regularly. Most people with COVID-19 can recover safely at home. Staying home as much as you can will help stop the spread of the virus, and help protect you from getting COVID-19 or another illness. 

If you think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19:

  • Call a doctor right away if you have a fever, cough, or are having a hard time breathing.

  • Don’t go out in public, except to get medical care. But call first before going to the doctor, so they can let you know for sure if you need treatment and direct you to the right place for care.

  • If you do have to go out, wear face masks any time you’re in public. Wear a multi-layer fabric mask that fits snugly against your face, or a disposable surgical mask underneath a fabric mask (to help stop air from leaking out around the edges). Read more about how to use face masks, and how to get the best protection from your masks.

  • Always cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use the inside of your elbow (not your hand) or a tissue, throw the tissue in the trash, and wash your hands right away. The tiny droplets that come out of your nose and mouth can spread COVID-19 to others.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it — especially after coughing, sneezing, going to the bathroom, or touching your face, and before handling food or touching other people. Scrub for at least 20 seconds, cleaning all surfaces on your hands, including between your fingers and under your nails. This helps kill germs that may be on your hands.

  • If you feel sick, stay home and try to avoid other people as much as possible. If you live with family members or roommates, try to keep away from them as much you can, especially if their age or health puts them at high risk of getting very sick if they get COVID-19. Wear a mask anytime you have to be around other people. Read more about what to do if you feel sick, or are caring for someone who’s sick

  • If you have to stay home from work because you feel sick, your employer may offer paid sick leave. There are new laws in place that require some employers to offer paid sick leave for those affected by COVID-19. Learn more about employee paid leave rights under the new federal law

  • If you’re fully vaccinated (it’s been 2 weeks since your final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine), you don’t need to quarantine or get tested unless you have COVID-19 symptoms.

Call 911 right away if you develop emergency warning signs like:

  • Trouble breathing or gasping for air

  • Severe chest pain or pressure

  • Confusion that’s not normal for you

  • Not being able to stay awake or respond 

  • Blue color in your lips or face

Tell the 911 operator if you’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 or have been to an area where there are lots of people who have COVID-19. If you have any other symptoms that are severe, call your nurse or doctor.

If you’re not sure whether you need treatment, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker to help you know if you need medical care, and to find other resources in your area.

Your state and local government and health departments will have the most up-to-date information about the new coronavirus in your area, and where to get treatment if you need it. Checking with them before you get treatment can help you make sure you go to the right place for care, and help prevent more people (including you) from getting sick.

If you’re an immigrant, it’s important to know that getting testing, health care, or treatment for COVID-19 will not count against you when applying for a green card or visa. Even if you don't have health insurance, you can still get care at a hospital or health center. Learn more about your rights when accessing health care

Was this page helpful?
You’re the best! Thanks for your feedback.
Thanks for your feedback.