Condition Center: COVID-19

Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez
Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

By now, we're all familiar with COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus — a particularly contagious and dangerous type of coronavirus. It started to spread around the world in 2020 and, by mid-2022, had killed more than one million people in the US. With new variants continuing to crop up and infect the population, understanding how the virus spreads — and what to do if you catch it — is extremely important.

Understanding COVID-19

COVID-19 can cause a range of symptoms, such as fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, runny nose, and nausea. Symptoms usually appear within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus. Signs of severe COVID-19, which requires emergency medical care, include trouble breathing; pain or pressure in your chest; difficulty staying awake; and pale or blueish skin, lips, or nail beds.

The virus spreads when people who are infected sneeze, cough, or exhale, expelling tiny respiratory droplets that contain particles of the virus. If you are nearby and breathe in the particles — or if they get into your eyes, nose, or mouth — you can come down with COVID-19. "That's why masking when you're indoors with lots of other people — especially when transmission in your area is high — is the best thing you can do to protect yourself," says Paul Adamson, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. (You can find case rates in your area using the CDC's tracker.)

Masks aren't foolproof, but they help. A study of a widespread outbreak aboard a US aircraft carrier found that use of face coverings on board was associated with a 70 percent reduced risk of infection.

The other important prevention strategy is vaccination. While vaccinated people can have breakthrough infections, the vaccine reduces the risk of serious illness and death, according to the CDC.

People younger than 50 are far less likely to die of COVID-19 than older people, according to the CDC, and women are less likely to die from the virus than men. But an estimated 10 to 30 percent of people who contract the virus develop long-term health problems after the infection, according to the American Medical Association, and rates of long COVID, as it's called, are higher in women — although it's not clear exactly why, Dr. Adamson says. What we do know: some people with long COVID are so ill that they can no longer work and so fatigued that taking a shower or going to the grocery store can leave them exhausted. Being vaccinated reduces the risk of developing long COVID by at least 15 percent, according to research in the journal Nature Medicine, though other research has shown it cuts your chances in half.

Important Risk Factors For COVID-19

There are several factors that increase the risk of someone experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms:

  • Being unvaccinated is one of the biggest risk factors for having a serious, life-threatening infection, Dr. Adamson says. In March 2022, for instance, the rate of COVID-associated deaths among unvaccinated people 12 years and older was 17 times higher than in people who were vaccinated and had received a booster dose.
  • Underlying medical conditions. "A number of underlying medical conditions also make it more likely you'll get very sick if you contract the virus," Dr. Adamson says. These medical conditions include diabetes, moderate to severe asthma, being overweight, being sedentary, and having a compromised immune system — from another health condition or from medications such as chemotherapy or steroids.
  • "Pregnant women are also at higher risk," Dr. Adamson says. Research shows that people who are pregnant or gave birth recently are more likely than others to get seriously ill from COVID-19. This may be due to pregnancy-related changes in the immune system and the fact that the lungs and cardiovascular system — which the virus tends to attack — are already strained by pregnancy. Vaccinated pregnant people are nearly twice as likely as vaccinated people who aren't pregnant to have a breakthrough infection. So if you're pregnant, you need to be extra cautious about exposure.
  • People of color are at higher risk of being hospitalized with or dying from COVID. The underlying cause of this disparity can be traced, in large part, to structural racism: reduced access to quality healthcare, greater occupational exposure (people of color are more likely to have jobs that can't be done remotely), and lower socioeconomic status are all contributing factors. The stress of discrimination can also take a toll on the body and increase the risks of many medical conditions, including severe COVID-19. People of color are also more likely to have diabetes, a risk factor for severe COVID-19, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Most Effective COVID-19 Treatments

"Most people under 65 who are vaccinated and boosted can recover at home with rest and fluids," Dr. Adamson says. You can also take over-the-counter medications, like acetaminophen, to relieve achiness and headaches. Stay home and isolate yourself from people you live with as much as possible. The CDC currently recommends quarantining for at least five days after diagnosis. Also important: get tested to confirm you have COVID-19. (You no longer have to quarantine if you're just exposed to the virus, though you should wear a mask around others for 10 days and test yourself five days after the exposure.)

That said, there are therapeutics that can help reduce symptoms. So if you are pregnant or have an underlying condition that puts you at increased risk of developing severe illness, contact your doctor as soon as you test positive or develop symptoms you think may be COVID-19, and ask about your options — such as getting a prescription for Paxlovid, an antiviral medication. "It works best when you take it in the first few days after infection," Dr. Adamson says.