As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, we've asked readers what they most want to know about its impact, prevention and treatment. This is an answer to one of those questions. You can find more answers here.

 

What's the best way to prepare for COVID-19?

 COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, much like influenza, and while there’s not a vaccine for it, there are ways to cope. The precautions used to fight influenza are the same ones that people should be using to stave off coronavirus and other respiratory diseases, said Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

- Wash your hands regularly

- Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze

- Stay home from work or school when you’re sick

- Drink lots of fluids

The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose or sneezing. It also advises to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and to frequently clean objects and surfaces you touch often.

READ: Tough coronavirus prevention advice: Don't touch your face  

 

Should I be wearing a mask on my face?

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control encourages people, especially in areas hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus, to use coverings such as homemade masks, bandannas or T-shirts for their faces while outdoors.

Simple cloth masks that cover the mouth and nose can prevent virus transmission from individuals when they are out buying groceries or seeking medical care.

The guidance, a change from the CDC's previous recommendation, came as states continue to cope with critical shortfalls of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment and raised concern that it could cause a sudden run on masks.

Trump and other administration officials sought to minimize any burden by stressing the recommendations did not amount to requirements and that a variety of homemade coverings were acceptable.

However, some individual cities, businesses and health organizations are requiring homemade masks or face coverings for people to enter. 

Federal officials said that surgical masks and N95 respirator masks should be reserved for those on the front lines of fighting the spread of the infection. N95 masks must be fitted and tested to work properly. The same goes for exam gloves, which can get contaminated just like our hands. There’s no need for them if you’re washing your hands properly and often.

READ: How to make a face mask without sewing a stitch.

PODCAST: What you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic now.

 

Is hand sanitizer effective against COVID-19?

Washing your hands with soap and water is the most effective way to protect yourself, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But if soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” the agency says on its website. Sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and they are less effective if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

“It is very important when you use hand sanitizer that you use an adequate amount and you cover all of the surfaces of your hands,” said Dr. Alison Peterson, vice president of medical affairs at Allina Health’s United Hospital in St. Paul. Also, let your hands dry before touching anything. Apart from cleaning your hands, remember not to touch your face, something that is often easier said than done.

 

What is "flattening the curve" and how does social distancing help?

“Flattening the curve” is an expression used to explain how slowing the exponential growth in a disease’s spread can allow a country’s health system to better cope with the surge in cases so that it isn’t overwhelmed.

While the novel coronavirus pandemic might eventually infect a majority of people in the United States, the speed at which the outbreak spreads makes a huge difference in health outcomes. What epidemiologists fear is that the U.S. health system would become overwhelmed by a sudden surge that requires more people to be hospitalized than can be handled, both from a personnel and equipment standpoint. In a scenario of uncontrolled growth, more people would die simply because there might not be enough doctors, nurses, hospital beds or ventilators for people who need them.

“If you look at the curves of outbreaks, they go big peaks, and then come down. What we need to do is flatten that down,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Flattening the curve means that the social distancing measures being deployed in places like Italy and South Korea and now in the United States aren’t so much about preventing illness but rather slowing down the rate at which people get sick, according to Vox.

Without any measures to slow it down, COVID-19 will spread exponentially for months. An interactive simulation by the Washington Post shows how the spread can be slowed by use of “social distancing,” avoiding public spaces and large group gatherings that can increase the rapid spread of COVID-19.