Coronaviruses are common viruses that will affect most people at some point in their lives.
Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface. There are four main sub-groupings of coronaviruses, known as alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.
Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-1960s. The seven coronaviruses that can infect people are: 229E (alpha coronavirus); NL63 (alpha coronavirus); OC43 (beta coronavirus); HKU1 (beta coronavirus); MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS); SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS); SARS-CoV-2 (the novel beta coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19).
People around the world most commonly get infected with human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1. Most people have multiple infections over their lifetime. Young children are most likely to get infected.
The ways that common human coronaviruses spread have not been studied very extensively. However, it is likely that human coronaviruses spread from an infected person to others through the air, by coughing and sneezing, and through close personal contact, such as by touching or shaking hands. These viruses may also spread by touching contaminated objects or surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Signs and Symptoms
Common human coronaviruses 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1 usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold, that last for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include runny nose, cough, sore throat, and fever. These viruses can sometimes cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia which is more common in people with cardiopulmonary diseases or compromised immune systems, or the elderly.
Clinical presentation following the remaining three viruses SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 infection can range from asymptomatic to symptomatic. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath, with pneumonia and can progress in severe cases to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.
There are currently no vaccines available to protect you against human coronavirus infection. You may be able to reduce your risk of infection by doing the following:
- wash your hands often with soap and water
- avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
- avoid close contact with people who are sick
There are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses.
Most people with common human coronavirus illness will recover on their own. However, there are some things you can do to relieve your symptoms:
- take pain and fever medications (Caution: Aspirin should not be given to children)
- use a room humidifier or take a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
- drink plenty of liquids
- stay home and rest
If you are concerned about your symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider.