Here’s everything you need to know about the coronavirus right now

Source: Getty Images/Tom Merton

Don’t get carried away with online rumours - the official advice on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus is pretty straightforward.

Following the World Health Organisation's decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency, misinformation about the illness abounds.

If you're looking to protect yourself from the coronavirus, don't turn to social media. Here are the latest expert recommendations on how to prevent the spread of the illness, and keep yourself safe.

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?

First things first: if you're in Australia, you can get up-to-date information on the coronavirus and what to do about it on the Department of Health website. You can find even more detailed information on the government's Health Direct website.

The symptoms of coronavirus are similar to symptoms of the flu, and include fever, coughing or sneezing, difficulty breathing, a sore throat, and feelings of fatigue.

It can take up to 14 days for these symptoms to show up after a person is first infected, which is why the government is urging anyone who has recently returned from mainland China to isolate themselves at home for 14 days.

In some cases, the coronavirus can lead to more severe symptoms, such as breathing difficulties or pneumonia.

The World Health Organisation currently reports that older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease appear to be more vulnerable to severe cases of coronavirus.

How does the coronavirus spread?

Multiple countries have now reported cases where coronavirus has been transmitted from person to person.

Because the current coronavirus is such a new development, there's a lot we don't know about how it spreads. According to the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), current knowledge is based on what we know about coronaviruses we've faced previously, like MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

Based on what we know about those previous viruses, experts believe the current coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets found in coughs and sneezes.

The CDC reports that it's not clear right now whether you can catch the coronavirus by touching a surface the virus is on and then touching your face. It's also not yet clear whether the illness can be spread before symptoms appear.

In most cases so far, people have only caught coronavirus after being in close contact with a person who has the virus.

The Health Direct website defines close contact as face-to-face contact for at least 15 minutes, or spending at least two hours in a closed space with an infected person.

How do I protect myself from the coronavirus?

Contrary to popular belief, wearing a face mask is not recommended as a way to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus. It's more helpful for people who are already sick to wear face masks, to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.

The latest recommendations on protecting yourself from the coronavirus are listed on the Health Direct website, and include washing your hands regularly, avoiding touching your face if you have not washed your hands, and avoiding close contact with anyone showing signs of a respiratory illness.

The government also recommends checking the Smartraveller website if you're planning on travelling. As of February 2, the government is warning Australians not to travel to China, where the coronavirus originated.

If you're looking for up-to-date advice on protecting yourself from the coronavirus, seek out the Health Department website rather than information spread on social media. In the past week, there have been a range of fake social media posts and rumours spreading about the outbreak, which have claimed that people should be avoiding Chinese food and suburbs with large Chinese-Australian populations. These are not official recommendations.

What should I do if I think I've developed coronavirus symptoms?

If you're experiencing very serious symptoms such as severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000). If you've travelled recently, let the operator and paramedics know.

If you're experiencing symptoms that aren't urgent, the Health Direct symptom checker can help you decide what to do next. If you're heading to the doctor or the emergency room and you've recently travelled to China, call ahead first to let them know.

As with any time you experience flu-like symptoms, you should also try to avoid passing the illness on to other people. That means washing your hands regularly, staying home and avoiding public transport, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze (sneeze into your elbow), and wearing a surgical mask if you absolutely must go out.

If your doctor suspects you have been exposed to the coronavirus, they may recommend that you isolate yourself. Anyone who has been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case, and anyone who has recently returned from mainland China, must isolate themselves at home for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms.

There's more detail on what home isolation means here, but in short it means stay at home, and avoid contact with other people. Don't leave home for anything except medical care, and if you do need to leave for medical care call ahead to let them know you're coming, wear a mask if you can, and take private transport.

If other people live in your house, stay in a different room from them, and use a different bathroom if possible. Don't share plates, cups, bedding or other items, and wash anything you touch thoroughly after use. Wear a surgical mask when you're around other people, continue to cover your mouth while coughing and sneezing, and wash your hands regularly.

How worried should we be about the coronavirus?

Over the weekend, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

That's a serious event, and it can be easy to feel panicked after hearing about deaths caused by the coronavirus so far. But to keep things in perspective, there's a few important things to understand.

As of February 3, the World Health Organisation reports that there are 17,391 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world (the vast majority, 17,238, are in China). 

Of the 17,238 cases in China, 2296 are considered severe, and there have been 361 deaths (as of February 4, China reports that the number of confirmed cases has risen to 20,400, with the death toll rising to 425). 

That's concerning, but it's also clear that the vast majority of coronavirus cases are not leading to death -- the case fatality rate at present appears to be between 2 and 3 percent.

That's lower than the fatality rate for the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2002-3, which saw 8,098 cases resulting in 774 deaths (a fatality rate of 9.6 percent).

Right now, experts like Professor Raina MacIntyre, a Professor of Global Biosecurity at UNSW, say Australians do not need to be worried, as there have been only 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, and no deaths (as of February 4).

"At this stage we don't need to be worried because it's not widespread in the community," Professor MacIntyre told The Feed.

"The concern is that it's continuing to grow in China, and several experts are saying it's likely to become a pandemic. But it doesn't necessarily have to become a pandemic -- it didn't with SARS -- so we still need to focus on measures that will delay or prevent its spread in Australia."

"The longer we delay it, the closer we get to a vaccine."

If the coronavirus was to become a pandemic (an epidemic spreading across multiple continents), Professor MacIntyre warns that the consequences will be more severe.

"A case fatality rate of three percent and being highly contagious is a concern. If it's widespread, the number of seriously ill people we'll see will overwhelm our health system."

A case fatality rate of three percent is higher than that of the seasonal flu, for instance, which is around 0.1 percent. In 2019, the flu killed at least 430 Australians.

That risk illustrates why it's worth taking the coronavirus seriously, but it also should not be a cause for unnecessary alarm. Right now, there are very few cases in Australia, and the priority is to keep it that way.

Like with the flu, the best thing the average person can do is stay home if sick, keep an eye on their symptoms, and follow the advice shared by the Department of Health.