As the coronavirus pandemic continues, so do the questions about the virus. One of the most persistent is whether coronavirus is airborne, closely followed by 'can you catch coronavirus twice'? It’s understandable that many of us are wondering about the various aspects of the virus, and what we can do to better protect ourselves and our loved ones until a vaccine is rolled out.
That's why we spoke to Dr Gero Baiarda, COVID-19 media commentator, NHS GP and one of hundreds of practitioners available via doctor-on-demand service GPDQ, to get his expert answers to the most common coronavirus questions. Some you may already know the answer to, but others may be surprising.
Dr Baiarda also gives expert advice on how to deal with the coronavirus at home, and how to protect yourself as much as possible. We’d also recommend carefully reading the updated CDC coronavirus guidelines, including which groups of people are now on the updated list of who's at risk from coronavirus.
Here Dr Baiarda answers a series of common coronavirus questions relating to physical and mental health, groceries, transference, face masks, including homemade face masks and reusable fabric face masks, and how we can maintain good hygiene at home to keep COVID-19 at bay as much as possible.
1. How do I treat COVID-19 at home?
“If you have mild symptoms, you should treat yourself symptomatically, and I would suggest using primarily paracetamol for your fever symptoms, or if you are suffering from aches and chills.
“Although there is no definitive evidence that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) such as ibuprofen and naproxen can exacerbate the respiratory complications of COVID-19, the advice in the UK has been to avoid these medications as much as is possible until we know for sure. If you were already on NSAIDs for a pre-existing medical condition, you should continue to use them.
“The hallmark of this virus has been a dry, non-productive cough, and many patients have found that this has persisted sometimes for many weeks without any other complications such as breathlessness. It is worth using simple linctus that can be bought over the counter to help with this symptom. Otherwise, take plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet high in oily fish such as salmon, kippers and pilchards. This is because these foods contain high levels of Vitamin D and evidence shows this will help to boost the immune system, and may well be preventative against forming serious respiratory complications such as pneumonia.
“Many of us are Vitamin D deficient as it is, especially those from Minority Ethnic, Black and Asian descent. Therefore, the advice in recent weeks has been to take a daily Vitamin D supplement. 10mcg is the recommended daily dose for those of Caucasian descent, but I have recommended at least 25mcg for those from Black and Asian heritages. This is easily sourced over the counter or online from reputable pharmacies or health food shops.”
The CDC has produced extensive guidelines for helping you to look after yourself or a member of your household was is sick, including, most crucially, how to recognize when you need to seek urgent medical assistance.
2. What is the recovery time from COVID-19?
“The vast majority of those affected by COVID-19 suffer very mild symptoms, and are fully recovered within two weeks of the onset of symptoms. In my experience, this has been the case for approximately 80% of those affected.
"However, I am also aware of many patients suffering from mild to moderate symptoms for as long as six weeks. This can be particularly distressing for patients as they feel in limbo, and without making progress, are often unable to work remotely from home."
3. Can you catch coronavirus twice?
“There were initial fears that patients in South Korea were becoming reinfected, but on further analysis of data and testing, it appears that this is not the case, and that there were initial or subsequent errors in testing. It seems therefore unlikely that we can become re-infected with this particular strain of COVID-19. However, it is also probable that the virus that causes COVID-19 will mutate in time, and that we may need an ongoing annual vaccine to prevent catching the new and emerging strains, just as we do with influenza.
“It is more useful to think of immunity in terms of our antibody response to the coronavirus, and based on our knowledge of how we respond to and mount immunity to other viruses we encounter, we could cautiously assume that those of us who have formed IgG antibodies to the virus will have at least some level of protection against it should we encounter it again.
"This does not mean that we cannot carry it asymptomatically and affect others, so a program of social distancing and mindful rigorous hand-washing is likely to be with us for many months to come.”
4. Do I need to wear a face mask?
“The advice from the government is that we should use some sort of face covering when we are out in public and unable to avoid being in closer proximity with others who do not live in our households. It is very difficult to go shopping or get on public transport without getting closer to others than we might prefer at present, and I would definitely suggest using some sort of face covering.
"Scarves and bandanas have been suggested by governments worldwide, but in reality, they would be worn for the benefit of others rather than ourselves, in that they catch our cough and sneezes and stop the viral-laden droplets within them being passed onto surfaces or other people.
“I would not suggest that we do anything that compromises the supply of proper medical-grade full face masks to carers and NHS workers, but ideally, we would wear N95 or FFP2 or 3 masks in public. N95 masks, in particular, are water resistant, fit closely over the nose and around the chin and form a tight peripheral seal. With that said, they are not designed or intended for children, and will not form a tight enough seal if you are sporting more than a couple of days’ growth of stubble.”
Learn how to make your own face masks following CDC guidelines with our Homemade face masks 101.
5. Is coronavirus airborne?
“The virus is briefly airborne if it is coughed or sneezed, but generally speaking, it is not projected any further than two meters. This is because it is most effectively conveyed in droplets that we exhale in our coughs and sneezes, and these tend to be heavy, therefore obey gravity almost instantly. If they then land on surfaces we touch, we can pass the virus to our noses, eyes and mouths where it enters the body.
“There is some evidence that a cough or sneeze in an enclosed area such as within a car or in an airplane cabin can circulate the virus over a much wider area. If the virus is carried on a fine mist of fluid such as aerosol, as can happen in hospitals where nebulizers are being used, it can hang in the air for a maximum of three hours, we believe. That is the reason why the fullest face protection should only be used by frontline healthcare workers dealing with patients undergoing aerosol-generating procedures.”
Editor's note: the above information was given to us in May 2020. Since then, an open letter to the World Health Organization, written by 239 scientists from 32 different countries, is calling for greater acknowledgement of the possible role of airborne spread of COVID-19. The letter, titled 'It's Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19' has been published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. It's based on emerging data, and WHO is yet to respond.
6. How can I sleep better?
“This has been an extremely frightening time for many, not just because of the direct fear of what catching the virus might do to us or our loved ones, but also because of the serious financial ramifications of the pandemic and what it has done to our jobs and the economy. Many are worried that they do not have jobs to go back to, and it is affecting their mood and giving sleepless nights.
“I suspect that this is the reason that previous light drinkers have gotten into the habit of drinking more alcohol at night. However, we should be aware that alcohol has an initial stupefying effect that renders us unconscious, but that we will often ping awake as it leaves our systems in the early hours, and will often lead to fretful or broken sleep.
“On a practical level, I would suggest doing everything you can to minimize your financial impact – check if you are eligible for a mortgage or loan holiday, for example? Have you sought help? Many of our banks have been extraordinarily understanding of the pressures caused by this crisis.
“Please do not hesitate to seek help from your GP if you are feeling anxious or depressed. None of the problems that existed prior to this pandemic have magically disappeared, and we can provide you with extensive support, and appropriate medication if necessary, from the end of a phone or via a video consultation. The NHS has even gone so far as to provide free access to a cognitive behavioral therapy app called Sleepio, which aims to help you get to sleep without sleeping tablets or any other intervention.”
There could be a number of factors at play when it comes to poor sleep, and a common reason is an uncomfortable bed. If that resonates with you, consider one of the best mattresses or best pillows for your preferred sleep style.
7. Does coronavirus live on clothes?
“The virus doesn’t do very well on textiles and hair, as the fibers in clothing tend to remove and absorb the outer fatty layer of the virus, which it needs to penetrate the mucous membranes of our eyes, noses and mouths. With that said, we still believe that it survives in an infectious form for as long as two to three hours.
“I believe it is a good idea to have outdoor clothes and shoes, and to shower if possible as soon as we get home from being outside. If lockdown is eased in the upcoming weeks, and more and more of us return to a shared workplace, I believe that this would be minimum sensible advice.
“Many GPs have now taken to using surgical scrubs at work as a way of reducing the risk of transference of the virus back to our homes and virus, as these garments can be discarded at the end of the day and will survive vigorous washing at temperatures high enough to remove any and all infectants.”
8. Should I wash my groceries?
“This has been a controversial subject, and the official advice remains that the virus is not passed to others in food. I would advocate a more cautious approach, and suggest that it is possible for the virus to have been transferred to food by coughs, sneezes and being handled with unwashed hands. Most of the food that is being delivered to us comes in plastic packaging, and we know that the virus can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours, so we have every right to be cautious.
“I would suggest that we remove all plastic bags from our shopping and put them in the recycling straight away, and then wash smooth-surfaced fruit and vegetables with very dilute soapy water before rinsing thoroughly - we certainly do not want to tarnish food any more than it might have been when we got it home. The act of cooking is likely to get rid of any residual virus on food that we cannot wash, as we know that coronavirus will be destroyed by consistent heating at 65 degrees or above for 4 minutes or longer.”
Last month the World Health Organization weighed in on the topic of should you clean your groceries due to coronavirus, as many are unsure of the protocol. If you need to have essentials sent to your home, read our guide to the best grocery delivery services.
9. Is social distancing really necessary?
“It is important not to think that you are a passive participant in social distancing. As with driving, it is nearly always possible to anticipate, foresee and make amends for our fellow commuters’ shortcomings, and this is seldom not the case when it comes to maintaining a two-meter distance.
“With that said, it is very unlikely that anybody walking past you briskly at too short a distance is likely to contaminate you with virus unless they stopped and coughed and sneezed directly onto you. Even then, the droplets in that cough or sneeze would likely not have reached your nose, eyes or mouth, and that is where the virus enters the human body.
“Therefore, I would advise that if you make every effort to social distance, accept that there will be an occasional close encounter, but then come home and change clothes (if you feel they have been tarnished by unwanted proximity) and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, you have done all that is reasonable to avoid contracting the virus.”
10. What's the best way to take my temperature?
“Although you can glean some idea as to your own temperature or that of your child using the back of your hand on the neck or back, it is nowhere near as reliable as an in ear thermometer, which now appear to be in plentiful supply again online.
“If you do suspect that you or a loved one have a very high temperature that requires medical attention, there are other signs to look for that usually go with it. Is the heart rate very raised i.e. >100? Is the respiratory rate raised above 25 breaths per minute? Is there diminished levels of consciousness to what you would expect? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it is wise to seek immediate medical help regardless of whether or not you have an accurate temperature to hand.”
Read our guide to the best digital thermometers and where to buy them online.
11. Will exercise help protect me?
“We are becoming increasingly aware of those groups who are suffering the worst outcomes from contracting COVID-19, and we should strive to do all we can to avoid falling into them. For example, there is a huge correlation between being overweight or obese, and ending up on ITU.
“Also, there is some evidence that those who are less sedentary and take moderate daily exercise for at least 20 minutes a day fare a lot better. In the current state of lockdown, those of us who are perhaps carrying a few extra pounds have time to address these issues, and should try to increase our activity and modify our diets so that we are less at risk.
“I have already touched on eating a diet that is high in Vitamin D, but I would extend this to making sure that we eat a balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables so as to boost our antioxidant levels, as this is protective in itself.
“It is also important to keep regular hours regardless of whether we are going into work in the morning. Getting enough good quality sleep each night protects and boosts our immunity.
“Many of us are drinking more alcohol than we would do ordinarily, either out of boredom or anxiety, and this not only adversely affects sleep, but could also reduce our defences should we contract the virus, as there is evidence that those who drink more than the recommended weekly guidance for alcohol have worse COVID-19 outcomes.
“It is important to set oneself daily jobs and targets during isolation, because without them, we can succumb to feelings of low mood and depression as are commonly seen in the unemployed. Work gives a set and reassuring structure to our lives, and without this, many of us can start to slide into apathy and low motivation. Unfortunately, the lockdown has had exactly the same effect.”
Need a hand getting active? Then take a look at our round-up of the best fitness trackers. If you want to exercise at home, consider one of the best treadmills for walking and running indoors. Also stock up on tips from a registered dietician for healthy eating during lockdown, or learn how to protect your mental health when working from home.
12. Do I have COVID-19 or allergies?
“The ongoing pandemic coincides very much with hayfever season, unfortunately, so symptoms that we may have had without raising an eyebrow a year ago are now causing members of the public to isolate for fear they have contracted COVID-19.
"However, the usual antihistamine tablets and steroid nasal sprays and drops are unlikely to have any positive effect if you are indeed suffering from COVID-19, and I would suggest using them as you have always done should these symptoms arise. If they are effective, your symptoms are much more likely to be due to a cold or hayfever, and if they are not, you may be suffering from COVID-19.”
Learn more about coronavirus symptoms vs seasonal allergies from a leading allergist.