COVID-19… A Cold Virus That Can Turn into Pneumonia
Think of COVID-19 as nothing more than a common cold, but with the potential to progress into a really bad pneumonia. In most people it starts like a cold and ends like a cold. However, COVID-19 is different from most other cold viruses because it spreads to the lungs more frequently, and acts more aggressively when it gets there.
Please, realize that not everyone who catches COVID-19 is at equal risk for pneumonia. The greatest risk is in older men who are overweight and people with diabetes, alcoholics, or people with other serious health problems like emphysema, heart, liver, or kidney disease.
Let’s talk a little bit about the common cold because we actually know quite a bit about it and COVID-19 comes from the same viral family. The common cold is an upper respiratory infection (URI) that affects the nose, throat, sinuses, and larynx. Like other colds, COVID-19 can cause fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, etc. The average adult gets two or three colds a year. Symptoms may include sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, fevers and coughing. Recovery usually takes one to three weeks.
Cold viruses can be contracted through the air from people who are coughing or sneezing. But the greater risk is by touching inanimate objects and surfaces (doorknobs, faucets, or light switches) that have previously been touched, coughed on, or sneezed on by someone who is sick. The COVID-19 virus can survive outside the body on inanimate surfaces for up to a week. So, if you touch an infected surface you now have the virus sticking on your fingertips. If your hands touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the virus sticks to those mucous membranes, penetrates into those cells and starts the process of infection. COVID-19 cannot penetrate your skin. It only enters the body via the wet surfaces of your mouth, eyes, or nose.
Let’s talk about Viral Pneumonia
Remember, COVID acts just like any other cold unless it drops into the lungs. People who develop pneumonia usually start with the typical URI symptoms that I previously described. Let me stress one more time that thecoronavirus infection is just a plain old cold, unless it gets into the lungs and produces pneumonia.
Not all types of pneumonia are equally serious. Many cases don’t require hospitalization. However, those who are sick enough to require hospital admission show high fever, racking cough, shortness of breath, and sometimes chest pain when they breathe. Dying from pneumonia is much less common that it used to be. Standard hospital support which includes antibiotics, intensive care units, trained respiratory care technicians, oxygen support, and mechanical respirators all make a huge difference. I realize that standard antibiotics can’t treat coronavirus directly; however, antibiotics do prevent bacterial pneumonia, which is a known serious complication of viral pneumonia.
What Is the Actual Mortality Rate of COVID-19?
We can get some sense of the COVID-19’s danger by reviewing an inadvertent experiment performed on a large group of people on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship. Out of the approximately 3,700 passengers, 700 were infected and 8 perished. Were these people representative of the rest of us average Americans? Not exactly. The population of this cruise ship was largely elderly. It’s been shown that older people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. So, this was an experiment performed in a relatively more vulnerable population compared to the demographics in an average American city. As it turns out, the passengers who died of COVID were all over 70 years old. The other 700 infected passengers survived. So, the estimated COVID-19 mortality rate comes in at around 1% for the elderly population. The risk in younger people is far lower.
How Do You Avoid Getting COVID-19?
The same way you avoid any cold. After all, COVID-19 is a cold virus. Let me describe my personal experience dodging colds in my daily workplace. I am a 65-year-old physician who has seen patients in my office daily for over 30 years. Until recently, I would greet and shake hands with at least 10 to 20 people a day. I love my work and love being around people. But my job is obviously very high risk for picking up viruses and getting sick. Yet even with all of this daily human contact I almost never catch a cold. At most, maybe I come down with one cold every three to four years. So, what’s my secret? I live in constant awareness that my hands and my entire surrounding environment are covered with infectious viruses. I never touch my eyes, mouth, or nose without first washing my hands. Keeping my hands off my face does the trick.
Many of you diligently sterilize your surrounding environment by wiping down all your counters, keyboards, phones, doorknobs, etc. However, it’s not going to help if you keep touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Eventually one of those sneaky viruses will get you. They are everywhere. More than 95% of the colds we get come from our hands; relatively few people catch colds by being coughed on. Sure, if someone with a cold sneezes or coughs near me, I take precautions. I temporarily cease inhaling and move away so that I don’t breathe the standing air that closely surrounds them.
We are entering into a brand-new era with this new type of cold, one that has the potential to progress to a pneumonia in some people. Handshakes are a thing of the past. Obviously, anyone with active cold symptoms should be at home, isolated until the symptoms go away. Like smoking cigarettes indoors, moving around in public with a cough and runny nose is unacceptable.
Is There a Treatment for Coronavirus?
Treatment for the coronavirus is progressing. It has been known for some time that zinc inhibits the propagation and spread of the cold viruses from their starting place in our throat area to other areas of our body like the lungs. To minimize viral spread throughout the body, anyone who feels a new onset of cold symptoms should keep their mucous membranes (mouth and throat) constantly bathed in zinc until the cold symptoms abate. Cold-EEZE and Zicam are a couple of zinc products that are available over-the-counter at your local pharmacy. Don’t take them if you feel well, only take them if you feel cold symptoms coming on.
Research with hydroxychloroquine indicates it may be helpful if it is started at the first sign of symptoms. It is not clear if adding Zithromax gives further benefit. If respiratory compromise occurs, oral steroids such as Decadron or an inhaled steroid such as budesonide may be beneficial. Gilead Pharmaceuticals has also been given the go ahead to use remdesivir in people with COVID-19 plus severe respiratory symptoms. Multiple companies are working on vaccines.
I have one final tip. Over and over I see people with colds and stuffy noses, sniffing to prevent any secretion from running down their face. I want to yell: “Stop doing that!” When they sniff nasal secretions inward, they are sucking the virus down into their lungs, increasing the risk of pneumonia. Use tissues or a handkerchief for those runny noses but don’t suck those infected secretions down into your lungs!
Colds are inherently contagious and as a result they spread far and wide very quickly. Cold epidemics usually come to an end after most of the general population has been infected and herd immunity develops. Due to all the societal precautions that have been implemented, herd immunity is unlikely to occur soon. Fortunately, tests for active disease and tests for disease antibodies are now widely available and people who are infected or who have previously been infected can be identified.
Bottom line, this pandemic will probably continue until an effective vaccine is developed. I do know through my own experience that the discipline of hand-washing before face-touching works.