While it may not be menopause-related, viruses are certainly a women's health issue! And with all the concern around the coronavirus outbreak, we wanted to be sure we addressed it with you. 

Unless you’ve been in a very deep cave or lengthy Netflix binge, you’ve likely heard about the coronavirus. There’s been a lot of very scary coverage of the illness, but is it really worth so much intense focus and concern?

We talked with our Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rebecca Dunsmoor-Su, who, in addition to being an OB/GYN, is also an epidemiologist (epidemiology is the study of diseases in given populations). Here’s what she told us.

What is the coronavirus?

Says Dr. Dunsmoor-Su: The coronavirus is basically just a cold virus. There are lots of coronaviruses, actually; “corona” just describes the shape and format of the virus. We’ve known about multiple coronaviruses for a long time; the most recent version is known as 2019-nCoV.

The concern, according to Dr. Dunsmoor-Su, comes with the viruses that jump from animal to human. When we haven’t seen one before, she says, it raises some concerns because we haven’t had a chance to study it and we don’t know much about it.

“We saw the same panic with the SARS and MERS viruses, when they made the jump from animals to humans. These are all just coronaviruses. And the panic around SARS and MERS turned out to be largely unwarranted. There wasn’t the global pandemic some of the more sensational news outlets were speculating about, and it’s very likely this coronavirus will be the same.”

We asked her where the virus came from. In terms of this one, she tells us, “It probably jumped from animal to human in China, where there’s more active, public trading of live animals than we generally see in the west. We’re not sure yet what animal the virus came from. It’s been speculated that the origin may be bats or pangolins, but we don’t know that for sure.”

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Should we be in panic mode?

According to Dr. Dunsmoor-Su: No. This coronavirus is highly infectious because it spreads easily. However, it is what is called a “droplet precautions” illness because it can only spread via droplets of spit or mucus from infected people coughing and sneezing. Droplets from the cough land on a surface which you then touch, picking up the virus, and infect yourself by touching your face or eating before you wash your hands. It’s not aerosolized, so you likely can’t be infected from someone breathing on you.

So….as long as you wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can likely avoid getting sick.

Not only is it largely preventable with ordinary precautions, there’s not much opportunity to be exposed, outside a specific region in China. The coronavirus hasn’t been seen much in the US – 3 cases initially, and as of February 11, that number has grown to 13.

But a lot of people are sick

True. But most of them have very mild cases. As of February 11, in China, the numbers are 42,700+ cases and just over 1000 deaths. According to Dr. Dunsmoor-Su, those deaths are largely among people who are elderly, medically fragile, immunocompromised patients. For most people, this is a cold that comes with runny nose, maybe a fever, a cough, etc. The reason some die is because the virus turns into a viral pneumonia in medically fragile people, and viral pneumonia is very hard to treat.

What should I do to protect myself?

First, don’t panic. And don’t let sensational headlines urge you into taking unreasonable measures.

For example, don’t take Tamiflu – that won’t help you avoid contracting the illness.

In truth, says Dr. Dunsmoor-Su, the likelihood of coronavirus becoming a widespread pandemic in the US is very small; it’s being monitored, we know when people come in from that region of China, so we can track them. Also the regions where it is an epidemic are being isolated to keep the virus from spreading.

However, for those who are at risk, if you believe you have been exposed, go see your doctor. There is a test that can detect coronavirus, so ask to be tested for it.

If you have it, the procedure now is to provide supportive care – monitoring symptoms, Tylenol for fevers, keeping an eye on you for breathing issues. If you do have respiratory distress, then go to the doctor and get admitted to the hospital for treatment.

What about a mask, we asked: Is wearing a mask a good idea? You can wear a mask, says Dr. Dunsmoor-Su, but frankly washing your hands is more important. If you touch a doorknob that has the virus on it, then touch your eyes, the mask won’t do you any good. Basically, the mask is a good reminder not to touch your mouth or nose without first washing your hands.

How long can the virus survive on a doorknob? We don’t really know, Dr. Dunsmoor-Su tells us. Most viruses don’t survive long outside a body – maybe just an hour or two. But we don’t know yet for this particular virus. So best practices are to wash or sanitize your hands often and don’t touch your face.

Who is most vulnerable?

Are some folks more prone? Not really. Anyone can catch it, but some just get sicker, says Dr. Dunsmoor-Su. Pregnant women are considered medically fragile because their immune system is suppressed. Children are always medically fragile because their immune systems aren’t as robust – they haven’t been exposed to as many contagions, so they haven’t built up an immune “bank.” Anyone on chemotherapy or biologic immunosuppressant drugs for, say, colitis or arthritis, can be at greater risk, as can the elderly.

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Should I go live on an island?

That depends on the reason. Vacation, sure! To escape the coronavirus? Probably a bit extreme.

Yes, the coronavirus sounds very scary, and there’s a lot of hype around it, but honestly, it’s flu season, which is a much deadlier disease: flu has killed 12,000 people so far this year, Dr. Dunsmoor-Su says, so get your flu shot. If you’re medically fragile, you’re much more likely to get it, and you’re much more likely to get sick from it. Flu is airborne, so it can be easier to spread and catch because you can breathe it in.

According to Dr. Dunsmoor-Su, the flu shot doesn’t protect against all strains, but it does protect against the most worrisome strains that are circulating. It might not stop you getting sick, but it will minimize the illness, so you’re likely to have a much easier time of it. So, especially if you’re medically fragile, get your flu shot! And of course, take all the usual precautions of washing your hands, not touching your face, etc. – which, bonus, will help protect you against the coronavirus as well.

Your takeaway re: the coronavirus — Don’t panic

Panic is not warranted at this point. If you’re going to China, take lots of hand sanitizer, and don’t touch your mouth, nose, or eyes (wear a mask, if that helps you remember).

Yes, the number of the infected continues to rise, but the percentage of those who actually die from the disease is going down. Why the change? Because more people are going to the doctor or hospital with symptoms, and more people are getting tested. It’s likely more people were sick with the coronavirus but assumed they had a normal cold and recovered just fine. Only the worst cases were being seen when the outbreak began.

If you’re sick with a “cold,” here’s how to protect others

If you have a legitimate reason to believe you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, go to a doctor to get tested. (The Centers for Disease Control request you call your doctor first, to let them know of your exposure and that you’re coming in.)

  • If you have upper respiratory problems, go to a doctor.
  • If your symptoms are clearly not life-threatening, stay home.
  • Cough into your elbow, sleeve, handkerchief, something, so you don’t cough onto things and leave droplets.
  • Wash your hands regularly and sanitize when you can’t wash, especially before eating.
  • Don’t touch your face (particularly the mucus membranes in your mouth, nose, and eyes).
  • If you’re not feeling better within 3 – 5 days, talk with a doc.

Staying informed about the coronavirus is a good idea. But fear and panic really aren't warranted, even for those who might be considered "medically fragile." Take good precautions, eat well, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water, get your flu shot, and be well!

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