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COVID-19 has moved quickly across the globe. Though it is now worldwide, the recent spread of COVID-19 in the United States has worried many people, particularly those who fall into high-risk categories for severe symptoms and complications. Thankfully, there is a great deal we can do to remain calm, stay safe and reduce the spread of this disease. Learning about COVID-19 and how it spreads will allow you to follow best practices to stay as safe and healthy as possible. Read on for more information about COVID-19 and how to best protect yourself as someone with COPD.
Learning about COVID-19 can help you understand more about why things have progressed around the world the way they have. COVID-19 is a coronavirus (short for coronavirus disease 2019), and is part of a common family of viruses that causes illness in both people and animals. Coronaviruses are not new, and can cause anything from common colds to upper respiratory infections to the more severe respiratory diseases they’re famous for like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or the newly identified COVID-19.
COVID-19 can cause no symptoms, mild to moderate symptoms or very severe respiratory distress, depending on the person infected. Currently, scientists are finding that children of all ages tend to have very mild COVID-19 symptoms, or none at all. This is excellent news for children’s health and safety, but also means they are often carriers and can spread the disease unknowingly. People in good health and under the age of 50 have been found to typically have mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms. This is good news, too, but also contributes to people unknowingly spreading the disease. Those in high-risk categories—including older adults, pregnant women in their third trimester and people with pre-existing medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and lung disease—are at the highest risk of severe respiratory distress or secondary complications resulting from COVID-19. For people in these categories, like people with COPD, caution and safety are essential.
Keep in mind that information about COVID-19 is changing rapidly. Scientists and researchers are working overtime to study and learn more about this disease, but it will take time for them to fully understand it.
Many people have compared COVID-19 with the flu, but these diseases are different and should not be confused as they behave differently and have different treatments. To differentiate, it is helpful to understand the similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19.
Both the flu and COVID-19 are infectious respiratory illnesses with many similar symptoms, including body aches, cough, fatigue and fever, but different viruses cause these diseases. There are a variety of influenza viruses that can cause the flu, while COVID-19 is only caused by novel coronavirus 2019. Both the flu and COVID-19 can be spread before and during symptom presentation. However, the flu is not contagious nearly as long as COVID-19. Influenza is contagious for one day before symptoms present, and for about a week once someone starts feeling sick. This means people are contagious with the flu for approximately one week.
People infected with COVID-19, on the other hand, are contagious for much longer. Currently, the exact amount of time that people with COVID-19 are contagious before showing symptoms is unknown, but researchers theorize it could be up to 14 days before an infected person presents with symptoms. Scientists found that peak concentrations of the virus were reached before day five after onset of symptoms, and the virus concentrations found were incredibly high. This suggests that COVID-19 is extremely contagious, and they found that it continues to be contagious for at least 2 weeks, and up to 37 days, afterward. The fact that the COVID-19 remains active in the body for so long explains why it has spread so much faster than the flu, and it further demonstrates the need to take any symptoms seriously.
There are also differences in the way each virus spreads. Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread primarily through person-to-person contact via droplets in the air or on a surface immediately following an infected person’s sneeze, cough or speech. However, unlike influenza, scientists believe that COVID-19 droplets could remain active in the air up to 3 hours after a cough or sneeze. Flu can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours, while researchers found that COVID-19 can live up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. As such, it is important to keep surfaces clean and wash hands carefully after handling anything that could be infected.
Scientists have been able to study influenza since the virus was isolated in 1933. Because of this, we have some antiviral medications, like Tamiflu, that are effective for influenza. However, COVID-19 is still very new, so antivirals are still being tested for it. Similarly, the flu vaccine is widely available and recommended yearly.
As of the publication of this blog, no vaccine is currently available for COVID-19. Since there is currently no treatment for COVID-19—only treatments for the symptoms—prevention is vital.
There are many ways to protect yourself against COVID-19. One of the most effective and important things you can do to prevent any viral illness is to wash your hands. Hand washing is incredibly effective against COVID-19, so get in the habit now if you are not already! Wash your hands frequently, especially when you have been in public, you cough or sneeze or you have contact with another person or anything someone else has touched (like doorknobs, light switches, mail or groceries). When you wash your hands, wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Try singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while you wash to make sure you have washed long enough. If you cannot wash with soap and water, use antibacterial gel with at least 60% alcohol. To use it correctly, apply the gel to the palm of one hand and rub all over both hands until your hands are dry, without wiping any off.
It is also important to avoid touching your face, since the virus can be easily transferred to you or from you via your eyes, nose and mouth. If you touch your face, wash your hands right away. Cough or sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue, and then throw that tissue away and wash your hands. As hard as it can be, avoid touching people outside of your household, and avoid close contact for now. Instead, practice waving or winking as a greeting, and err toward communicating by phone or computer. Even if you haven’t had any contact with anyone who seems sick, maintain excellent overall hygiene. Continue to clean and disinfect surfaces in your home with EPA-approved products that kill the virus. Note that masks are not necessary unless you are sick and are using them to prevent the spread of your own germs.
As the national COVID-19 situation progresses, more cities and states are requiring that people participate in social distancing. Social distancing is the practice of maintaining distance from others to minimize the spread of a contagious disease. Individually, that means keeping 6 feet of distance between yourself and anyone else you encounter outside your home. As a community, that means taking major steps like canceling school, canceling events, closing public spaces and opting to stay home rather than venture out to a store, restaurant or playground. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that individuals avoid crowds and gatherings at this time, as even small gatherings increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 significantly faster. This is known as “flattening the curve,” which helps keep the health care system from being overwhelmed with surges of cases.
If you have COPD, social distancing is particularly important, as reducing contact with others reduces the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19. As a COPD patient, you are in the high-risk category and should be especially strict about avoiding spending time around other people—even if they appear healthy. If you have travel plans, it is best to cancel them for now. If you must travel somewhere, an individual car is best. Try to avoid public transportation, as the risk of exposure is too high.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, fatigue and dry cough. Approximately 1 out of every 6 people infected with COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and has shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. This is a particular concern for those in high-risk categories, like those with COPD.
However, there can be some variation in symptoms, so it is helpful to know them all. Depending on how your body reacts to COVID-19, you may see the following:
Most COVID-19 symptoms are also symptoms of COPD exacerbations, which can make it difficult to ascertain whether what you are experiencing is an exacerbation or COVID-19. The truth is, it may be hard to tell, but a high-grade fever would likely be the key indicator of COVID-19. Regardless, difficulty breathing with a cough, especially with a fever, is cause to call your doctor if you have COPD. It is also a good idea to call your doctor if you are experiencing any new, unusual or worsening symptoms.
Because respiratory illnesses can quickly become severe in COPD patients, call your doctor if you have any symptoms that concern you. If you have any of the common symptoms of COVID-19, tell your doctor when you call. In many parts of the country, COVID-19 test kits are limited right now, so you may not be tested, even if you show signs of COVID-19. If you have any of the COVID-19 symptoms listed above, follow all medical protocol, including self-quarantine directions, whether or not you have been tested for COVID-19. Because of the current overload, most hospitals and medical practices are currently requesting that you call before coming in. Don’t seek medical care from an emergency department unless you are experiencing difficulty breathing or other severe symptoms.
So what should you do if you need emergency treatment? Call the emergency department first if at all possible to let them know why you are coming in. If you need to call 911 for emergency assistance, let them know why you are calling and always disclose if you have COVID-19 symptoms. If you are sick and need to leave the house for medical attention and you already have a mask on hand, now is the right time to wear it. If you do not have any masks, however, please do not attempt to buy them now, as health professionals need them and they are in short supply.
In these unusual times, it is important to take good care of yourself. Maintain physical health with exercise and adequate sleep. Even while social distancing, you can take a daily walk, complete an exercise video online or incorporate stretches and breathing exercises into your daily routine. You should also consider your mental health, as social distancing can make people feel isolated. Nurture your relationships by keeping in touch on the phone or via video chat. Reach out if you feel lonely or need help.
Take care of yourself by being prepared, too. The CDC currently recommends that people in high-risk categories, like COPD patients, stock up on nonperishable foods (ideally 30 days worth) in case of quarantine or lockdown. Talk to your health care providers about getting a 30-90 day supply of medications, including oxygen if you use oxygen therapy, so that you can minimize the need to go out for necessities. Find out if you can have these things delivered to you.
For people who do become infected with COVID-19, the WHO recommends oxygen therapy as one of the major treatment interventions for severe COVID-19 symptoms. Regardless of whether you already receive oxygen therapy or if you think you may have COVID-19, talk to your doctor right away.
New information becomes available about COVID-19 each day. While all of the information above is intended as a general guide, be aware that it does not take the place of your doctor’s medical advice. Some of the information above will vary depending on the outbreak in your area. Stay informed on the latest news for COPD patients by checking with the CDC, COPD Foundation or the American Lung Association. Most importantly, the best practice is to be cautious.