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How to protect yourself from the coronavirus

The respiratory illness coronavirus has spread across the world, including the US, and the WHO has officially declared the disease a pandemic. As the threat becomes more widespread, new precautions must be taken: The federal government has implemented various protective measures, as have individual state, county and city governments. You, too, should take steps to protect yourself from COVID-19 and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus to others. In this article, learn how.

How likely are you to get the coronavirus? 

Anyone can contract COVID-19, although certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing serious complications from the virus and requiring hospitalization. Many people who get coronavirus will experience cold- or flu-like symptoms, and some people who get the virus will be completely asymptomatic. But no matter which group you fall into, everyone has a responsibility to limit the spread to other people, especially to those who may develop deadly complications.

Should Americans be worried about the coronavirus?

Even if you are not worried for your own health, you should remain aware that the novel coronavirus can be fatal and is widespread in the US. Even if it does not affect you, it may affect your friends, family, colleagues or other people with whom you have relationships -- especially those who have any of the high-risk factors determined by the CDC.

People at high risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 include older adults, pregnant women, people with asthma and HIV, and people with underlying diseases, including heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.

"Over 80% of people will have only mild symptoms from COVID-19. Adults who are healthy and active generally do the best," Dr. Moorcroft says, but part of the problem is that young, healthy people can spread the virus to people who will not tolerate it as well as healthy populations. 

"Physical distancing is a key component to decrease asymptomatic spread," Dr. Moorcroft explains. "This works by minimizing your risk of being exposed to the virus and, if you are an asymptomatic carrier, you minimize the potential that you infect someone else."

While this may sound very simple, Dr. Moorcroft emphasizes that it is effective and "imperative at the current time."

How to protect yourself from the coronavirus

Nothing has changed about the way COVID-19 spreads, Dr. Moorcroft says, so the basics still apply. The coronavirus is spread through respiratory vapor, such as when someone sneezes or coughs into the air around you. It can also spread if someone who is infected sneezes or coughs into their hand, then touches a door handle, light switch and other "high-touch" surfaces.

Influenza viruses and common cold viruses are also spread this way. However, now that the virus is more widespread in the US, other preventative guidelines do apply, such as the now-well-known concept of social distancing.

Wash your hands

Yes, this is still the no. 1 way to prevent coronavirus, Dr. Moorcroft says. "The things you should do to protect yourself from the coronavirus are things you should do every day," he points out. "The no. 1 thing you can do to prevent any respiratory illness is to practice good personal hygiene." 

Washing your hands correctly -- using soap and water and washing for at least 20 seconds -- or using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available, still stands as the best way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, according to the CDC.  

Stay home

The CDC, the WHO, governments and healthcare workers are all urging people to stay home if they can. Obviously, some people don't have the luxury of working from home, and people still need to venture out to grocery stores and gas stations. But when you can stay home, do so to flatten the curve.

If you do need to leave the house, follow some basic preventative measures.

Follow local public health guidelines

By mid-March 2020, many states, counties and cities implemented their own protective measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many public and private schools are closed, and youth sports programs have been suspended just as college and professional sports have. Restaurants and bars are closed or have limited hours and capabilities, as do other nonessential businesses, such as clothing stores.

If your state or local government has imposed guidelines, you should follow them to the best of your ability.

Boost your immune system

On top of basic illness prevention, Moorcroft says the best (and only real) defense against disease is a strong immune system. Your body is better able to fight off illnesses when your immune system is really humming, he explains, and everyone should put in an effort to get theirs into tip-top shape.

"This is a time to focus on all the health habits you may have been putting off," Moorcroft says. "Start daily activities and food choices that support your health and turn them into habits that will lead to lifelong improvements in health. During this time, get adequate sleep and some fresh air and sunlight daily."

Also, stay hydrated, minimize overly processed foods and make sure to eat enough micronutrients when you can (try your best with what you can find at grocery stores right now).

Try to stay calm

In addition to your physical health, you should take care of your mental health. High stress levels can take a toll on your immune system, which is the opposite of what you want in this situation. If you're feeling overly anxious about COVID-19, follow these tips from a psychotherapist to keep your nerves calm.

Other tips

Moorcroft also reiterates the CDC's advice for avoiding coronavirus (and other respiratory diseases):

  • Sneeze and cough into tissues or the crook of your elbow. If you get mucus or spit on your skin, clean it off right away. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially people exhibiting respiratory symptoms and fever.
  • Stay home when you're sick.
  • Regularly and thoroughly clean surfaces, such as counter tops and doorknobs, with a disinfectant. 
  • As for face masks, the CDC still maintains that only those who are sick should wear them to prevent the spread of the virus. If you are not sick, you don't need to wear a face mask unless you're caring for someone who is sick.

How can I protect myself while traveling?

You really shouldn't be traveling anywhere at this point, according to the WHO, the CDC, the federal government and state governments. Avoiding travel -- even travel within your own city -- is the best way to stop the spread of coronavirus, Moorcroft reiterates. For travel guidelines, check with your local or state officials, and stay up-to-date with federal travel restrictions, CDC recommendations and WHO recommendations.

Stay informed

As COVID-19 spreads across the US, Moorcroft encourages everyone to stay armed with the facts. Specifically, he recommends monitoring the CDC website and the WHO website, where both agencies post daily updates on the number of cases in the US and in the world, as well as continually updated guidelines on how to protect yourself and others.

It's easy to get swept up in the ever-increasing amount of information available online, as well as the fear factor and misinformation from social media, and your best bet is to get your information from the actual health organizations that are investigating the issue firsthand.

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