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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, get the facts on the latest health advice relating to COVID-19
  • Originally published: 23 March 2020
  • Last updated: 17 September 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:

  • Face-coverings are now mandatory on public transport and in shops across the UK. In England, Wales, and Scotland they are now mandatory in most enclosed public spaces.
  • 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.
  • People in parts of the UK are struggling to access coronavirus swab tests, as shortages and delays disrupt the system.
  • Contact tracing is now in place across the UK. 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.
  • Some medical appointments that were rescheduled during lockdown are starting to go ahead, but routine appointments - including at the dentist and optician - are still on hold.

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?

    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 exhibitsymptoms 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

    Surgical masks and other face coverings

    The debate about whether or not masks should be worn by the general public has gained steam as the pandemic develops.

    Non-medical face coverings are now mandatory in certain situations in the UK.

    • In England, face covering are mandatory on public transport, and in hospitals, shops and other enclosed public spaces.
    • In Scotland, face coverings are mandatory on public transport, in shops and in other enclosed public spaces.
    • In Northern Ireland, face coverings are mandatory on public transport and in shops.
    • In Wales, face coverings are mandatory on public transport.

    The WHO recently announced that it advises people use three-layer face coverings in enclosed space where social distancing is not always possible.

    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.

    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, and whether you need to wear one, 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.

    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.

    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.

    Alcohol-free hand sanitisers can be gentler on the skin but the scientific evidence varies more for alcohol-free products than it does for sanitisers containing alcohol.

    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.

    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 for COVID-19

    Chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, has been among the medicines being investigated as possible treatments for COVID-19. But it's important to note that it is 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.

    It can have severe side effects, and have a wide range of toxic and lethal doses, which is why its use for other ailments is usually carefully overseen by healthcare professionals.

    Attempts by the public to obtain drugs like this 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 separateevidence 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.

    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 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

    Coronavirus testing - to detect an active infection - 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 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.

    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.

    Antibody tests - to detect whether you've previously had the virus - are not yet available to the general public. Private firms selling these tests have been instructed to stop while the MHRA verifies the accuracy of the tests.

    You can find out more about who's eligible and how to access the tests on the government coronavirus testing website.

    See our full story on coronavirus home testing kits.

    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.

    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.

    NHS tracing app

    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.'

    Recently it has been announced that the broader roll-out of the app will take longer than predicted, and may not happen until late this year.