As COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, becomes more prevalent around the world, University of Alabama at Birmingham experts share tips to help you prepare yourself, your family and your home should the virus continue to gain momentum.

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What is COVID-19?

Human coronaviruses are the second most common cause of colds and generally cause mild to moderate symptoms. Sometimes, coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and become a new human coronavirus, as in the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 or the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which first appeared in late 2019.

“This has become dangerous because this is a first-of-its-kind type of coronavirus, and all humans do not have immunity built up to fight it,” said Rachael Lee, M.D., UAB Medicine’s health care epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring the evolving epidemic of respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. To date, Chinese health officials have reported thousands of infections with the virus in China, as well as community spread in other locations such as South Korea, Italy and Iran.  To date, the United States has had a minimal number of cases. The CDC anticipates that the virus could spread and affect countries worldwide, including the United States. 

Based on early reports of COVID-19, symptoms typically include fever, runny nose, headache, cough and a general feeling of being unwell; these are the same symptoms of the common flu virus.

If you begin to experience flu-like symptoms, UAB doctors recommend seeking medical care as soon as possible.

Wash your hands

Caroline Cartledge, a nurse practitioner with UAB Student Health Services, details the right way to make sure your hands are as clean as possible. 

 “Wash your hands as much as you can,” she said. “We always recommend handwashing before you eat anything, before you make food for other people and after you use the restroom. I wash my hands anytime I touch a doorknob; if there is hand-sanitizer around, I always use it.

People touch their faces more often than they realize. Every time you touch a door handle and then scratch your nose, you are susceptible to contracting viruses.” 

Cartledge recommends lathering your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 

“A good rule of thumb is to sing or hum ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself twice,” she said. 

Traveling and more

Lee says to follow the CDC and local health care authorities’ guidance regarding travel to areas with active disease. She recommends using common sense to be safe and careful in traveling. 

“As with any respiratory virus, the main recommendations hold true with the novel coronavirus,” Lee said. “Wash your hands, cover your cough with your arm, and stay home if you feel sick. Wearing surgical masks out in public is not recommended, as brief exposure to the virus in public is unlikely to make a person sick. Most cases have occurred when there has been prolonged contact, such as with health care professionals or family members serving as a caregiver. Use of masks is recommended for health care professionals, caregivers and those with disease symptoms.” 

Lee adds that, in the United States, we have seen very few cases of COVID-19. However, we are still seeing a large number of influenza cases that are causing many hospitalizations across the United States. 

“It’s important at this time to get to your flu shot if you have not already done so,” Lee said. 

She also suggests that, if you have symptoms and need to see a health care professional, call ahead to your health care provider, so that they can take appropriate precautions to treat you and safeguard themselves and others in the clinic or hospital when you arrive. 

Building immunity

While washing your hands is always recommended, Jessica Grayson, M.D., assistant professor with the UAB Department of Otolaryngology, says certain foods and supplements can help boost your immune system, potentially protecting your body from germs. 

“Foods that contain indole-3-carbinols have been found to reduce the number of viral infections — while this hasn’t been specifically tested in coronaviruses, the prevention of any viral illnesses that may weaken your immune system is and will be important,” Grayson said. “These foods include leafy greens like kale, spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, etc. They can be cooked or raw.”

Grayson adds that elderberry has certain compounds that have been approved by the FDA for use in flavoring of food. 

“There are many studies on the antiviral and antimicrobial activity of elderberry,” Grayson said. “It has been shown in some studies to bind to some subtypes of the flu virus to prevent cell entry. However, there are still more studies needed to confirm whether this is true substantial benefit.” 

You can also boost your immune system by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, says Lee. Eat a balanced diet, get plenty of rest, and avoid stress. 

Grayson also says there is no data to support that increased Vitamin C helps prevent or shorten viral illnesses. In fact, studies looking at this have shown no benefit. Utilizing the leafy greens above in a smoothie can be an easy way to increase intake, but strictly drinking orange or pineapple juice does not have proof of benefit. 

Protect your home and loved ones

Ian McKeag, M.D., a family and community medicine physician at UAB, says now is the time to disinfect and clean your home. Use isopropyl alcohol, or disinfecting wipes, to wipe down countertops and common areas. 

“Keep the surfaces of your home clean, especially areas where you eat and spend the most time,” McKeag said. “Use soap and water to wash your hands after you touch contaminated areas, such as doorknobs, toilet and faucet handles, and any cooking items. If you do not have access to soap and water, use hand-sanitizer.” 

McKeag adds that it is also a good idea to avoid shaking hands with others right now. If you do, wash your hands or use sanitizer right away, especially before touching your face. 

Grayson says you should limit the amount of time spent in public places and avoid people who are sick, including those who are coughing or presenting symptoms. 

“If you have a fever or other symptoms, stay home,” Grayson said. “If your children have a fever, do not send them to school. Consider working from home if your workplace allows it.” 

Finally, she recommends planning ahead for your daily medications.

“Be sure that you have plenty of the medicines that you routinely take so that if ill you can avoid going out in public to retrieve these things,” Grayson said. “In the case of a pandemic or major outbreak in the U.S., it is a good idea to stock up on non-perishable foods should your community be quarantined.” 

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