Understanding COVID-19 Vocabulary
May 28, 2020 Cedars-Sinai Staff
From "flattening the curve" to "quarantini," the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new terms into our vocabulary overnight.
Whether you're watching the news, visiting the doctor or just navigating daily life at home and in your community, making sure you understand this new terminology plays a key role in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"With the novel coronavirus, it matters a lot. Using terminology incorrectly can lead to misinformation and even put lives at risk."
"It's not uncommon for people to throw around medical terms or consult 'Dr. Google' for insight and advice. Usually, it doesn't matter," says Dr. Christopher Fitzgerald, a primary care doctor at Cedars-Sinai. "But with the novel coronavirus, it matters a lot. Using terminology incorrectly can lead to misinformation and even put lives at risk."
Basic COVID-19 terms
When talking about the current pandemic, people often use terms like COVID-19, coronavirus and SARS-CoV-2 interchangeably, but they're not the same.
"There are several coronaviruses and four of them have been circulating for years," Dr. Fitzgerald says. "Those viruses are not unlike the common cold. But there are other coronaviruses that can cause severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and COVID-19."
Here's how those terms break down.
Coronavirus is an entire family of viruses, four of which are similar in symptoms and severity to the common cold. The name coronavirus stems from the crown-like spikes, or coronas, that appear on the viruses under a microscope. The more deadly forms of coronavirus include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
The term novel coronavirus refers to a new strand of coronavirus that hasn't been seen before, in this case the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Discovered in December 2019, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can lead to the disease now known as COVID-19. You can have SARS-CoV-2 without developing any symptoms. Scientists believe SARS-CoV-2 started in animals and spread to humans.
COVID-19 is the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. "You can have SARS-CoV-2 without developing COVID-19," Dr. Fitzgerald says. Symptoms of COVID-19 range from cough, fever and shortness of breath to diarrhea. In more serious cases, COVID-19 can lead to clotting in the lungs, multi-organ failure and death.
Testing terms for the virus that causes COVID-19
Testing for COVID-19 isn't clear-cut and remains a point of confusion for many. Even if you test negative, you could still have the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"The swab may not catch the virus, or the virus may not be at a high enough quantity for detection," Dr. Fizgerald says.
Currently, there are two types of tests available.
Viral tests rely on samples from your respiratory system (such as swabs of the inside of the nose) to determine whether you have a current infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Some tests can produce results in less than an hour, while other tests must be analyzed in a lab and can take several days.
Antibody tests detect whether you have had a previous infection with the virus. Because these tests detect the proteins our bodies made to help fight off infections, they can't be used to diagnose someone with an active COVID-19 infection.
Scientists aren't clear whether these antibodies provide immunity against future repeat infections of the virus. These tests are helpful for research, like convalescent plasma, but are not intended for diagnosis.
Terms to keep everybody safe during COVID-19
Unfortunately, some of the tests for coronavirus don't distinguish between a previous exposure from a less harmful coronavirus and the novel coronavirus that can lead to COVID-19. That means it's critical to understand three key terms that can help prevent the spread of the virus and keep you and your family safe.
Physical distancing means maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 feet between you and other people. So, if you cough or sneeze, your secretions won't reach the people around you.
"Everyone in the country should be practicing physical distancing," Dr. Fitzgerald says.
Avoid large groups of people and keep your distance when leaving your home for essentials.
Quarantine is a more aggressive prevention strategy that is used in the event of exposure. If you have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, you should quarantine for 14 days.
This involves restricting your movements to only what's absolutely critical, wearing a mask in public and maintaining a safe physical distance from anyone who didn't have the same exposure.
If you're suffering from a sore throat or nasal congestion, call your doctor to discuss next steps.
Isolation is the most serious form of protecting others around you. If you have a confirmed or suspected case of novel coronavirus, you should remain separated from people who are not sick—even those who live with you. This means you stay at home in a room that's separated from the rest of your family and monitor your health for 10 to 14 days.
Like any medical situation, educating yourself on the science and the appropriate terms will help you understand the situation and respond appropriately.
"That's the best way we can all prevent the spread of COVID-19," says Dr. Fitzgerald.