COVID-19 Guide: Symptoms, Social Distancing, and Protecting Yourself

Staying away from infected people is the most reliable way to avoid getting ill, but that’s not always possible. Hawkins says “silent spreaders,” who spread the illness before having symptoms or without ever having symptoms, are a large driver of the pandemic. “In most studies to date, people are most infectious right before they start to show symptoms, referred to as the presymptomatic period,” she says. “Further, those who have only mild symptoms can be just as contagious as someone with moderate symptoms.”

The CDC recommends frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you’ve been out in public. If you can’t access soap and water or a sink, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol, and cover the entirety of your hands, rubbing them until they dry. According to Jones-Lopez, you should also wash your wrists, especially if your wrists have touched an infected surface or you touched your wrists with your hands. It’s also important to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, particularly when your hands aren’t washed.

The CDC recently recommended that everyone wear cloth face coverings in public settings where appropriate social distancing of six or more feet may be hard to maintain, and “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” Facial coverings, which should fit snugly over a person’s mouth and nose, can prevent droplets from spreading to other people.

While masks can serve as a barrier to infection, avoid going out in public as much as possible. “If you’re sick with any symptoms, stay home,” says Hawkins, “and try to self-isolate from other people in your home when possible.”

What should I know about social distancing and shelter-in-place orders?

Hawkins says social distancing, also known as physical distancing, is currently the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus from person-to-person. It’s important because the virus primarily spreads via respiratory droplets in the air when people sneeze, cough, or touch surfaces where the droplets have landed.

“You’re more likely to have exposure if you’re physically closer to someone who could be exposing you without even knowing it,” Hawkins says. “Distance protects you from touching and from droplets.”

To implement social distancing, many states issued shelter-in-place orders, which require people to stay at home, except for essential activities like grocery shopping and going to the doctor. When people do go out for these errands, the CDC recommends they physically distance themselves at least six feet away from another person and avoid gathering in groups.

“It’s really hard to have such strict and restrictive measures, but I think it’s helpful to know that these measures save lives,” Hawkins says. “This is what we can do individually to protect our communities.”

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