- Originally published: 23 March 2020
- Last updated: 28 May 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.
Key information at a glance:
- Anosmia (loss of normal smell and taste) is now one of the symptoms – along with a fever and new persistent cough – that requires self-isolation. Anyone with a cough, fever or loss of normal taste and smell (anosmia) 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.
- Anyone displaying symptoms is now encouraged to apply for testing. Find out more about how to access the tests on the government coronavirus testing website.
- In England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, contact tracing is now in place. This is where people with a positive test result should disclose to the NHS who they’ve been in close contact with, so those people can be advised to isolate too. Wales is launching its tracing system soon.
- The government has announced that lockdown is being relaxed, though measures vary between the devolved nations.
- The UK government is now advising people to wear non-medical face-coverings in certain situations where social distancing is not possible, like on public transport.
- When out you should aim to social distance at all times (stay at least two metres away from other people) and wash your hands thoroughly once home.
- Health bosses have urged people to still seek help for other conditions, as A&E attendance and cancer referrals have dropped dramatically. Find out what to do in you have health concerns in our guide to accessing medical care during lockdown.
Coronavirus latest – get straight to the latest news and advice from our money, travel and health experts
Advice on how to protect yourself and others
Scroll down to see all the latest advice, or use the links below to skip to particular sections:
- What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
- What you can do to protect yourself
- Surgical masks and face coverings
- Hand sanitizer, antibacterial hand wipes and ‘immune boost’ medicines: which products do you need?
- What to do if you develop symptoms and COVID-19 testing
- Coronavirus tracking and tracing
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, and loss of normal taste and smell (anosmia).
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. Anosmia (loss of smell) is another key symptom that’s only been recently officially recognised as such – appearing in 59% of confirmed cases according to data gathered by Kings College London.
Experts warn about hayfever and coronavirus
Now that we are in hayfever season, this can also be a challenge. See our full story on hayfever and coronavirus to find out how to tell the difference and why controlling your symptoms matters.
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.
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
The debate about whether or not masks should be worn by the general public has gained steam as the pandemic develops.
The UK government is now encouraging people to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not always possible, for example on public transport or in some shops.
But the government emphasises that: ‘a face covering is not the same as a face mask such as the surgical masks or respirators used as part of personal protective equipment by healthcare and other workers.’ It says that ‘these supplies must continue to be reserved for those who need it.’
So you should leave the medical-grade kit, like N95 respirators, and other surgical masks for healthcare and other frontline workers.
The recommendation for wearing a face covering in certain situations applies to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales, face coverings are not recommended.
Face coverings are only effective if used correctly. That is, worn properly, changed frequently and in combination with frequent handwashing. Used incorrectly, they could actually increase your risk of infection.
Some suggest they can also make it more likely you touch your face as you may reach to adjust the mask if uncomfortable. If you do use one, check WHO advice on using a mask properly.
For more on how to buy and wear a face covering, see our full story on coronavirus and face masks.
Is it worth buying things such as hand sanitiser gel, antibacterial wipes 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.
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.
While possible, 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. It’s also hard to get hold of the raw ingredients needed to do so.
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.
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.
For more advice on which hand sanitisers and soaps to use – see our full guide to soap and hand sanitiser.
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.
Vitamin D and COVID-19
Public Health England has advised that people take a vitamin D supplement (the recommended amount is 10 micrograms per day) throughout spring and summer as we’re spending less time outdoors.
This is not to say that vitamin D can treat or prevent COVID-19. Scientists have warned against taking higher-than-recommended doses for this purpose, following some unverified reports that this could reduce the risk of catching the virus.
Chloroquine and hydroxycholoroquine for COVID-19
Two antimalarial drugs – chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – are among the medicines being investigated as possible treatments for COVID-19. But it’s important to note that they are not yet proven in the treatment for coronavirus and clinical trials are still ongoing.
A UK pharmacist told us that they had experienced customers trying to obtain chloroquine for COVID-19. This is not possible as these drugs are only licensed for sale as an antimalarial and their potential effectiveness against coronavirus is unproven.
Both drugs can have severe side effects, and have a wide range of toxic and lethal doses, which is why their use for other ailments is usually carefully overseen by healthcare professionals.
Attempts by the public to obtain these drugs for COVID-19 treatment is also causing troubling medicine shortages for people who are already taking them for different, authorised reasons, including people with the auto-immune disease lupus.
Ibuprofen and COVID-19
The Commission of Human Medicines expert working group has concluded there is insufficient evidence linking the use of ibuprofen with susceptibility to COVID-19 or worsening of associated symptoms.
This followed warnings that 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, which arose based on separate evidence that ibuprofen can contribute to complications from other respiratory infections.
A pharmacist we spoke to explained that: ‘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 says that you can take ibuprofen or paracetamol to treat the symptoms of coronavirus, but recommends trying paracetamol first as it has fewer side effects and suits more people.
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 current 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 is now available to the general population. Anyone displaying symptoms (a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste) is eligible to apply for a test.
Tests can be booked to take place at a testing site, or people can request a home test kit, which is then sent off to a lab for analysis.
The government is now encouraging symptomatic people to apply for a test as part of the test and trace system. This system, currently operating in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, means that people who test positive for coronavirus are contacted by the NHS to find out who they may have infected, and then those people are also instructed to isolate.
Wales is due to introduce its contact tracing system on June 1.
Some lab-based tests are available through private health firms, but they come at a very high price, which has attracted some criticism. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has raised concerns that the confusion around the availability of testing kits could fuel the marketing of fraudulent test kits by scammers.
You can find out more about who’s eligible and how to access the tests on the government coronavirus testing website.
What if your symptoms don’t improve after seven days?
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.
The second week of the illness can be a time where there is potential for symptoms to worsen. Do contact the NHS promptly and seek help if you start to feel worse, not better.
The government has begun a trial of its contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight, to pilot the system before rolling it out across the UK. The app will log the distance between your phone and other phones nearby that also have the app installed.
According to the NHS, ‘This anonymous log of how close you are to others will be stored securely on your phone. If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days.’