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A glossary of coronavirus-related terms

Wake Forest Baptist Healthwire

The coronavirus outbreak is having a major impact on multiple aspects of daily life – including our vocabulary.

“Like many other fields, medicine uses terminology that the general public need not be familiar with in normal circumstances,” said Dr. Werner Bischoff, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem and Wake Forest Baptist Health System’s epidemiologist. “But now because of coronavirus a lot of medical terms that people may never have heard or seen before are all over the news. Knowing what these various terms mean can be valuable, to help people better understand what’s going on and make good decisions.”

To that end, here’s a list of some coronavirus-related words and phrases that you’ve probably come across (and will undoubtedly encounter again), with basic definitions:   

Virus. A microscopic parasite that can multiply only in the living cells of other organisms, including humans, animals, plants and bacteria. 

COVID-19. The formal name for the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered variety of coronavirus. It stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

Symptoms. The physical signs indicating the presence of a disease or other illness. The primary symptoms of coronavirus are fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Infectious disease. A disorder caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, not normally found in the human body. Infectious diseases can be transmitted directly or indirectly to people by other people, insects, animals and contaminated food, water or other substances.

Contagious disease. A disease that can spread from person to person through direct or indirect transmission. Also known as communicable disease. Coronavirus is a highly contagious disease.

Direct transmission. The transmission of a disease through direct physical contact, such as shaking hands or kissing, between an infected person and another, or when the spray produced by an infected person’s cough or sneeze reaches another’s nose, mouth or eyes.

Indirect transmission. The transmission of a disease through physical contact with contaminated surfaces, such as door handles or elevator buttons. There is evidence that coronavirus can survive on some hard surfaces for as long as three days.

Asymptomatic transmission. The transmission of a virus by people who are infected but don’t realize it because they don’t have any symptoms. Coronavirus can be transmitted asymptomatically.

Respiratory disease. A disease that affects the lungs and other parts of the body involved with breathing. Coronavirus is a respiratory disease.

Epidemiology. The branch of medical science that deals with the causes, extent and control of diseases and other health conditions.

Outbreak. The higher-than-normal incidence of a disease.

Epidemic. A sudden increase in the number of cases of a specific disease in a single geographic area.

Pandemic. The worldwide spread of a disease that affects large numbers of people. The World Health organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11. (The designation has nothing to do with the severity of a disease.)    

Screening. An initial process to determine if a person has a disease, usually involving taking their temperature and asking follow-up questions if they have a fever. 

Quarantine. The practice of confining apparently healthy people who may have been exposed to an infectious disease to see whether they become ill. The length of a quarantine depends on the incubation period of the disease.

Incubation period. The amount of time it may take for symptoms to appear in someone who has become infected with a disease. The incubation period for coronavirus is believed to be between two and 14 days, with symptoms usually appearing after five days.

Isolation. The practice of keeping someone who is determined to have a contagious disease apart from people other than care providers, as in a hospital isolation ward. 

Community spread. The spread of a virus among people in a particular geographic area, including those who are unaware of how or where they became infected.

Social distancing. Measures taken to minimize contact between people, which can reduce the community spread of a contagious disease, especially one that can be transmitted asymptomatically. Limiting the size of gatherings is a primary social-distancing measure.   

Transmission rate. The number of people who will be infected by any one person with the particular disease. The transmission rate for coronavirus has been estimated to be 2.2.  

Mortality rate. The number of deaths caused by a disease divided by the number of confirmed cases.

Underlying condition. An existing health problem that impairs an individual’s resistance to another disorder or disease. Among the underlying conditions that increase the risk of contracting a severe case of coronavirus are diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses and immune system disorders.

Vaccine. A biological preparation designed to provide immunity against one or several diseases by stimulating the production of antibodies in the body. There is currently no vaccine for coronavirus; the first clinical trial of a potential vaccine began March 16.

Ventilator. A medical device that moves air into and out of the lungs of a patient who is physically unable to breathe properly, a process sometimes called artificial respiration.