By now, there is probably not a man, woman or child that has not heard about coronaviruses.

The current spread of this virus is close to creating total hysteria around the world. Folks are panicking and avoiding coming in contact with people in the public; entire cities with millions of people are quarantined; travel to and from certain countries has been banned; Amazon has sold completely (globally) out of every mask that can protect you. In short this is a public health crisis!

Many of you have probably seen the video that has gone viral about the conspiracy theory asserting that Lysol spray can protect you from coronavirus, and this is not a new virus. Once I saw the extent to which this type of false, and misleading information was traveling (particularly for Black folks), I felt it would be helpful to write a Virus 101 column.

Let me first clear up this basic misinformation.

The Coronaviruses were first discovered back in the 1960’s as viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. In humans, the viruses cause respiratory infections which are typically mild, including the common cold; however, rarer forms such as SARS, MERS and this “new” coronavirus causing the current outbreak can be lethal.

Viruses are very small infectious agents. They’re made up of DNA or RNA. Viruses invade cells in your body and use components of those cells to help them multiply; often damaging or destroying infected cells. Viruses have the ability to rapidly mutate and escape from the immune system’s memory. Thus, the “new” coronavirus.

Now, for some, all of this needs to start with making it clear that viruses and bacteria are not the same things. A bacterial infection can be cleared up with a doctor-prescribed dose of antibiotics, while a virus does not respond to antibiotics. Antiviral medication can help ease the symptoms of a viral infection, but it’s up to the body’s strong immune system to fight off the viral infection. That’s why you always hear some caution directed at “people with weakened immune systems” whenever infections of any kind are mentioned.

Viral infections that may be minor in normal, healthy individuals can be quite severe for people who have a weakened immune system. A person with a weak immune system is likely to get infections more frequently than most other people, and these illnesses might be more severe or harder to treat. These people may also find themselves dealing with an infection that a person with a stronger immune system might not get.

Not all viral diseases are contagious. This means they aren’t always spread from person to person. But many of them are. Some of the most common examples of contagious viral diseases include the flu, the common cold, HIV and herpes. Most of them are respiratory viruses and are spread by droplets generated through coughing or sneezing. If someone with a viral illness coughs or sneezes nearby and you inhale these droplets, you may develop the disease. These contagious viruses can also be spread through contaminated objects, such as doorknobs, tabletops and personal items. If you touch one of these objects and then touch your nose or eyes, you could develop a disease.

Food or water that’s been contaminated by feces can spread the virus to others. You can also get the virus from sharing utensils or personal objects from someone who has a virus.

The coronavirus receives its name from the crown (corona) that is seen when the virus is viewed by an electron microscope. Most coronaviruses infect animals, but not people. Human coronaviruses are, however, common throughout the world. Seven different coronaviruses, that scientists know of, can infect people and make them sick. Some human coronaviruses were identified many years ago and some have been identified recently.

Coronaviruses are spread by close person to person contact most commonly during the winter months. The virus is most frequently spread by respiratory droplets produced when someone infected coughs or sneezes. The droplets containing the virus can be propelled generally up to three feet and can land onto the mouth, nose or eyes of people nearby. The infectious droplets can also land on objects and surfaces where someone can then pick them up and touch his/her mouth, nose or eye(s).

There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid close contact with people who are sick; stay home when you are sick; cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash; clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

These are everyday habits that can help prevent the spread of several viruses. After all, CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 19 million flu illnesses, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths from flu.

Glenn Ellis, MPH, is a Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of “Which Doctor?” and “Information is the Best Medicine.” Ellis is an active media contributor on health equity and medical ethics. For more good health information visit:

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