What Is the Difference Between Coronavirus and COVID-19?

Illustrated representation of SARS-CoV-2, or “novel coronavirus.”

The coronavirus refers to a group of viruses that often cause respiratory illnesses in humans, including COVID-19. COVID is shorthand for the condition’s full name, which is coronavirus disease. The 19 denotes the year of the first outbreak, which occurred in late 2019. The World Health Organization first named COVID-19 in February 2020. This new coronavirus is also referred to as SARS-CoV-2, or “novel coronavirus.”

Learn how the coronavirus causing COVID-19 is different from other coronaviruses, why it makes people so sick and ways to avoid contracting the illness.

Why Is the Novel Coronavirus New?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the virus is novel to humans, meaning it started among animals. Animals transmitted it to people, and now the virus can be passed from person to person. The human immune system has no way of coping with the new virus.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19 and no universally effective treatment. As with the Middle East virus (MERS), SARS and other epidemics, this allows the virus to spread and sicken people quickly.

Is COVID-19 the Most Contagious Coronavirus?

According to WebMD, coronaviruses are quite common. The virus infects your sinuses, nose and upper throat and spreads like a cold. Nearly everyone gets a coronavirus infection at least once.

However, COVID-19 is more contagious than its cousins that cause common colds and influenza because it didn’t originate in humans. As a result, the virus causes more cellular damage and inflammation.

Where Did the Coronavirus Start?

Scientists traced the first cases of COVID-19 to a seafood and poultry market located in Wuhan, China. The first reported case occurred in December 2019. From there, cases began cropping up around the world. The rapid spread in more than one hot spot caused officials to upgrade the disease from an outbreak to an epidemic to a global pandemic.

Many organizations, such as Johns Hopkins, are charting the course of the virus as the death toll rises.

Illustration of the origins of the novel coronavirus, from animals to humans, on the backdrop of a world map, highlighting Wuhan, China.
The origin of the novel coronavirus, as explained by WHO.

What Kinds of Tests Are Available?

Tests to diagnose the disease have been in short supply, making it hard to get an accurate count of those infected.

There are two kinds of tests, viral tests and antibody tests.

  • A viral test reveals a current infection.
  • An antibody test shows if you’ve had a previous infection.

It takes 1-3 weeks after you recover for your body to produce antibodies. Scientists don’t know if the antibodies will protect people from future infections since the disease is so new.


The symptoms of COVID-19 are well-known by now and resemble those of a cold or flu in milder cases. They include a cough, fever and shortness of breath.

Health care professionals report a wide range of symptoms. Some are severe enough to require a ventilator and can cause death. It takes up to two weeks from exposure to develop symptoms, which include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste
  • Loss of smell


4-image split screen of individuals showing mild COVID-19-related symptoms.
Symptoms of COVID-19 are varied, including fever, runny nose, lack of smell/taste and more.

Symptoms in children include:

  • Persistent fever
  • Stomachache, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Pink or red eyes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Confusion and sluggishness

When Does Someone Become Contagious?

According to Science News, up to 44% of cases may be spread person to person before any symptoms develop. Because infected people can spread the virus before they show symptoms themselves, schools, workplaces and other public venues are hot spots for transmission.

When asymptomatic transmission occurs, protective measures such as social distancing and quarantines can slow the spread of the virus.

Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment or PPE helps limit direct contact, and officials hope that this curbs the tide of new infections.

The CDC provides instructions to health care workers using PPE, as follows:

  1. Identify and gather PPE.
  2. Sanitize hands by washing them and using hand sanitizer.
  3. First, put on an isolation gown.
  4. Use a NIOSH-approved N95 filtering face mask or facepiece. If none is available, use a KN95 alternative, as outlined by the FDA and CDC.
  5. Wash your hands before putting on gloves.
Image of medical staff wearing full-gowns, face masks, gloves and other medical PPE to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Protect yourself with personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns & masks.

If you use a face mask or gloves in public places, it’s a good idea to follow the advice of the experts. When hospitals and other medical facilities open back up, visitors may well be asked to follow some of the safety tips before entering a patient’s room.

What if You Think You’ve Been Exposed to the Coronavirus?

If you think you’ve been exposed to coronavirus, call your health care professional immediately to discuss your symptoms or concerns. Even if you can’t see your doctor in person, they may be available through telemedicine services. Call first since many clinics have diminished hours.

Who Is At the Greatest Risk?

COVID-19 hits some populations harder than others. Some of those most at risk include:

  • Seniors 65 and older
  • Those with chronic heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma or high blood pressure
  • Residents in nursing homes and eldercare facilities
  • Severely obese people with a BMI greater than 40

What Is the Current Outlook for Catching COVID-19?

At the time of this article, the CDC is predicting increases in future deaths but a slowing rate of infections. States with lower infection rates are less likely to see increasing death rates.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, at the end of April 2020, determined that nearly 40% of adults in the United States had a higher risk of contracting serious illness if infected with coronavirus, based on age (over 65) or existing health conditions.

Knowing the difference between the coronavirus and COVID-19 is important. However, it’s just the beginning when it comes to protecting yourself via social distancing, using PPE and avoiding crowded public places.

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