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Coronavirus Read our latest advice

Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others, plus what protective measures don’t work

Get the facts on what can help to minimise your risk of infection – and the things that probably won't. From surgical masks to anti-inflammatory medication, we bring you the facts on all the latest health advice relating to COVID-19

Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others, plus what protective measures don’t work

Last updated: 2 April 2020

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread, we’ve rounded up the key information you need to know to help protect yourself and others.

Here, we explain what you can do to protect against infection, which products are unlikely to help and what you should do if you develop symptoms.

Latest updates:

  • The government has now announced a stricter UK ‘lockdown’. This means that you’re only allowed to leave the house to exercise alone (once a day), to buy food or medicine, for essential work that can’t be done at home or to care for vulnerable people.
  • When out you should aim to social distance at all times (stay two metres away from other people) and you should wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home.
  • Anyone with a cough or fever should completely self-isolate at home for seven days (not even going out for food or medicine, if possible) and the rest of the household should also self-isolate for 14 days.
  • Emerging evidence suggests loss of sense of taste/smell could also be a common symptom of COVID-19 (though this can also be a symptom of a common cold).
  • UK medical researchers have launched a COVID-19 symptom reporting app. Your updates can help researchers track the spread and prevalence of the virus, and better understand the symptoms. Bear in mind that some privacy experts have expressed concern about the speed at which the app has been created considering that it involves personal data – we’re looking into this aspect of the app at the moment and will report back.

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What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the name of the illness caused by a type of coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans. It’s part of the same virus family as the common cold and more serious diseases such as SARS.

The main symptoms are fever, followed by a dry cough, which may then develop into shortness of breath.

Loss of smell and taste may also be markers of infection from COVID-19.

In most cases, symptoms are mild. Some people may even be unaware they have it and have no significant symptoms. This is one of the reasons the disease may have been able to spread so quickly and why it has proven difficult to contain.

Even people who are totally asymptomatic can still be contagious for a period of time. That’s why it’s important for everyone to be diligent with social distancing and hand hygiene.

Coronavirus vs cold and flu: recognising symptoms

The novel coronavirus shares some overlapping symptoms with the common cold and seasonal flu.

Symptoms vary person to person, so it can be difficult to distinguish between this new respiratory disease and the ones we are more familiar with.

It’s particularly tough to distinguish between a mild case of COVID-19 and a more severe cold. But here are some key markers of each to help give you an idea:

Cold Symptoms usually come on gradually, affects mainly your nose and throat, makes you feel unwell but not severely exhausted.

Flu Appears more quickly and affects more than just your nose and throat (commonly high fever, aches and pains, more severe exhaustion).

COVID-19 Fever and a dry cough are the most common / notable symptoms, appearing in 88% and 68% of cases respectively according to WHO data on confirmed cases, followed by sputum production, and shortness of breath.

What is a persistent or continuous cough?

The cough associated with coronavirus will be newly developed, and is usually continuous – ie you start coughing repeatedly, and you may not have any respite from the cough during the day.

It’s important to self-isolate for seven days if you exhibit symptoms of cold, flu or COVID-19.

What can you do to help protect against coronavirus?

It’s not yet known exactly how coronavirus spreads or how long it can live outside the body on surfaces.

Similar viruses are spread via cough and sneeze droplets, but don’t last a long time outside the body. Therefore, the best advice is to be vigilant about hygiene as you would with a normal cold or flu, and avoid other people if you’re feeling unwell.

There are many products out there that claim to kill ‘germs’, but these aren’t always strictly necessary or indeed effective with viruses.

Practice good hygiene

This is the most important, basic advice you can follow. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, or if you don’t have access to this use hand sanitiser gel.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth – if your hands touch an infected surface this could transfer it into your body.
  • Don’t get too close to people coughing, sneezing or with a fever. The NHS says keep two metres away.

In addition, if you are feeling unwell:

  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing – ideally with a tissue – and wash your hands afterwards to prevent the virus spreading. If caught short, use your elbow rather than your hands.
  • Throw used tissues away promptly.

It’s a good idea to wash your hands if you have to commute or visit busy public spaces, as germs may be present on shared surfaces on buses, trains and at stations.

You can find more advice and frequently asked questions on the WHO coronavirus public advice page.

Hygiene around the home and at work

To clean effectively in your home or around you at work, concentrate on the ‘superhighways’ that spread pathogens. So your hands, the surfaces you regularly touch (especially food prep areas and keyboards or computer mice) and anything that could spread bacteria, such as kitchen cloths or sponges.

When cleaning your house, pay particular attention to the kitchen and toilet. Also, make sure you dry worktops and chopping boards after cleaning: dampness helps bacteria survive and multiply. Be sure to wash your hands before food prep.

Worried about germs at home? Find out more about home hygiene

Is it worth buying things such as hand sanitiser gel, surgical masks and ‘immune defence’ vitamins?

Products such as hand sanitiser gel and surgical masks are selling out worldwide due to fears over coronavirus, but do you really need them?

We run through some of the popular options and whether they are actually worth tracking down or not.

Antibacterial products

We’ve found that many products with antibacterial claims aren’t necessarily better than old-fashioned soap and water. For example, as long as you’re washing your hands thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds) you don’t really need to buy a hand soap with specific antibacterial claims.

Many products that are marketed as antibacterial will have no impact against common viruses such as norovirus or the common cold, and so may have limited effectiveness against coronavirus.

Hand sanitiser gel

Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water is the best option. However, the WHO does say that antibacterial hand gel can help kill viruses and it can be a convenient option if you have to go outdoors.

You might be hard-pushed to find any at the moment, though, as it’s in high demand and is either out of stock or low in stock at most major high street retailers.

We checked major retailers, including Boots, Superdrug, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Wilko and Waitrose, and found that most had sold out online and across many stores. Boots has now put a limit on the amount that one customer can buy at a time and other stores are following suit.

On Amazon, reports of price-gouging prompted the company to remove ‘tens of thousands’ of overpriced products from its site – but we’ve still spotted some examples, including multipacks of Carex hand sanitizer for about 10 times the normal price.

How to find hand sanitiser

Your best bet is to ask your local stores when they restock, and try and be there when they do, or check with the big supermarkets and pharmacy brands to see if you can order some online or click and collect.

If you can’t find any hand sanitiser, don’t panic, and don’t pay over-inflated amounts for it online, particularly from unknown retailers on sites such as Amazon and eBay. Aim instead to stick to the advice above about not touching your face and wash your hands regularly.

It’s not recommended to try and make your own hand sanitiser, as it’s hard to be sure you have the correct concentration of alcohol to be effective and adding too much could irritate your hands.

How to use hand sanitiser properly

If you are using hand sanitiser, do it correctly:

  • Your hands should not be visibly dirty, this renders the gel less effective
  • Hands need to be dry for the gel to work properly
  • Hand gels need at least 60% alcohol content to be most effective
  • Cover the entirety of both hands with the gel and rub until dry

Regularly applying hand sanitiser is likely to dry out your hands, so make sure you also carry a good hand moisturiser with you.

Antibacterial wipes

A shortage of hand sanitiser gels may prompt you to reach for antibacterial wipes, but these may not be very effective if their ethanol content is not high enough, which is the case for many brands.

A study from Northumbria University in 2018 found that antibacterial surface wipes may be a waste of money as bugs can grow back on surfaces within 20 minutes. Again, the conclusion was that good old-fashioned soap and water was the most effective way to break down the cell walls of harmful bacteria and virus membranes.

Surgical masks

The debate about whether or not masks should be worn by the general public has gained steam as the pandemic develops. Research is ongoing as to whether more widespread use of masks beyond people with symptoms and healthcare workers should be encouraged.

The current advice is that while surgical masks may have some effectiveness in blocking liquid droplets, they don’t block smaller airborne particles that can still spread illness. If you’re coughing or sneezing, it’s definitely better to avoid going outside.

But new research about the use of masks has been prompted by some studies showing that the virus might be able to travel further in the air than previously thought, and some European countries are now encouraging their use among the public.

The NHS and Public Health England say that while masks are very important in hospital settings (or if you’re looking after someone who is unwell), there is limited evidence that they’re of widespread benefit to the general public.

And they’re only effective if used correctly – worn properly, changed frequently and in combination with frequent handwashing. Some suggest they can actually make it more likely you touch your face as you adjust the mask. If you do decide to use one, check WHO advice on using a mask properly.

Bear in mind that some senior health professionals are calling on the public not to buy surgical masks as this creates a shortage for front-line health workers where there is a legitimate need for their use.

Nasal defence sprays

Products such as Vicks First Defence nasal spray claim to trap and neutralise viruses in the nose before they have a chance to develop and spread.

Currently, the jury is out on their effectiveness and evidence is still limited, but it’s possible they could act as a prophylactic for a short period of time.

Specialised ‘immune defence’ vitamins

Some stores are touting specialised ‘Immune Defence’ vitamins as a way to protect yourself against illness.

A lot of these vitamin products will be similar to a regular multivitamin or probiotics, which we’ve found to have limited evidence behind them in building disease immunity. Targeted vitamins and supplements are usually more expensive, too.

There is some evidence that vitamin C can help against the common cold if taken before symptoms present, but there is no evidence that it has an impact against COVID-19.

Indeed, there is currently no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus, so treat any such claims with scepticism.

If you’re concerned, the best defense is to aim to maintain a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, get enough sleep, exercise where possible and try to avoid stress or watching too much news coverage about coronavirus that could make you anxious.

Developing coronavirus symptoms: what to do

If you develop symptoms similar to those listed above head to the official NHS coronavirus advice page to find out what you should do.

This is constantly being updated and gives the latest health advice, answering common questions and concerns, and advising on how to stay mentally and physically healthy while at home.

Currently, the NHS says not to visit your GP or pharmacy if you have symptoms, and instead stay at home and completely self-isolate for seven days (under the latest lockdown rules, we should all be staying at home and social distancing where possible anyway).

If you live with other people, they should also self-isolate for 14 days from the day the first person in your household got symptoms.

If they develop symptoms in this time, they should then self-isolate for seven days from the time they first got symptoms, even if this means they end up staying home longer than 14 days.

Coronavirus testing

Public Health England has announced that a home finger prick test is in final stages of evaluation and may be rolled out first to key workers within the week.

The test would be able to tell people whether they’d already had the COVID-19 infection, and assist hugely in an eventual return to life as normal.

It is hoped that the results could reveal how many people are getting the virus without symptoms, and – in the first stage of roll out – let NHS nurses and doctors know whether they are immune.

Find out more in our full story on coronavirus home testing kits.

The government is no longer asking people to report milder COVID-19 symptoms and get tested. Only patients who meet suitable criteria and are in hospital will be tested.

However, there is a COVID-19 symptom reporting app, launched by UK medical researchers at King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals in partnership with health data science developer ZOE, in which you can report symptoms.

You won’t find out if you have it, but your updates can help researchers track the spread and prevalence of the virus, and better understand its nature.

Experts warn against using Ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory painkillers

Medical professionals have warned that common anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen, naproxen and voltarol may not be suitable for use if you’re trying to treat the fever associated with COVID-19.

While there is currently no evidence that taking ibuprofen makes the symptoms of novel coronavirus worse (and stories circulating around social media to this effect are false), there is some evidence that ibuprofen can contribute to complications from other respiratory infections.

A pharmacist we spoke to told us: ‘The body’s immune response to virus attack is an inflammatory process which this class of drug inhibits. Paracetamol has no anti-inflammatory action, yet reduces pain and raised temperature. In my practice, paracetamol is always first-choice recommendation in these circumstances.’

The NHS recommends drinking plenty of fluids and using paracetamol to calm a fever.

What if your symptoms don’t improve after seven days?

If you begin to feel very unwell during the seven days, use the NHS 111 COVID-19 emergency online service to find out what to do next. If you can’t use this service, then call NHS 111 instead.

If you still have a fever after seven days, the NHS advises staying home until you no longer have a fever and contacting NHS 111.

If your fever has improved but you still have a cough, it says you don’t need to continue staying at home, as these can persist after an infection.

However, as we are now in a lockdown, you should continue to practice social distancing and only leave home for essential journeys or supplies.

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