Breaking Down the Outbreak

A new virus has made thousands of people around the world sick. Here are answers to the most pressing questions about it—from kids like you.

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Medical staff tend to a patient infected with the new coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in February.

What is this new virus?

Viruses are tiny particles that can cause illness. There are hundreds of thousands of different viruses. If you’ve ever had a stuffy nose, you probably caught a virus that causes the common cold. More severe illnesses, like the flu, are also caused by viruses.

This new virus is a type of virus called a coronavirus. That’s because of the crown-like spikes on its surface. (Corona is another word for crown.) The virus causes an illness named COVID-19. Because the virus is so new, scientists have many questions about it. For instance, they are still learning how dangerous it is.

Where did the virus come from, and how does it spread?

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The virus was first detected in the city of Wuhan, in central China in December 2019. Within two months, it infected more than 75,000 people and killed more than 2,000. It has since spread to many countries around the world, including the U.S.

Scientists think the new virus spreads like many other viruses do. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets containing the virus are sprayed through the air. If another person breathes in these droplets, he or she can get sick. People can also become infected if they touch a surface where the droplets have landed, and then they touch their mouths, noses, or eyes without washing their hands first.

There’s absolutely no evidence that people of different races or ethnicities are more likely to catch the virus than others.

What happens if you catch the virus?

Like the flu virus, this new coronavirus affects the nose, throat, and lungs. The two viruses can cause diseases with similar symptoms, such as a cough and fever. However, the new virus seems to cause more severe sickness than the seasonal flu, especially among older people and people with health conditions.

Still, you should try not to worry. The vast majority of cases are mild, says Jennifer Nuzzo, a disease researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. But if you do feel sick and are short of breath, it’s important to see a doctor and practice good hygiene so you don’t accidentally spread whatever germs you may have.

What are experts doing to keep people safe?

Since the new virus was first discovered, scientists have been working to understand exactly how it affects people. They are also trying to develop medicines to treat infected people and a vaccine to prevent healthy people from getting sick.

Officials have closed schools and many businesses to encourage people to stay home as much as possible and avoid large groups. That helps prevent the disease from spreading.

How can people avoid getting sick?  

To stay healthy, experts recommend that you frequently wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (It doesn't matter if the water is cold or warm.) That rids your hands of many disease-spreading germs, including the new coronavirus. You should also avoid touching your face to prevent germs from entering your eyes, mouth, and nose.

Health officials in the U.S. are recommending that people wear cloth masks if they have to go outside. Masks covering your nose and mouth can help you keep from spreading a disease, even if you’re not feeling sick. Experts say the best thing you can do is stay home.

Amesh Adalja, a disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has another piece of advice: “Keep up-to-date with what’s going on in your community,” he says. “You shouldn't panic.”

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