What is a Coronavirus?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 20 January 2020
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Coronavirus, of the family Coronaviridae, is a class of animal virus associated with the common cold and other more serious conditions, such as pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Due to mutation, some forms of Coronavirus are extremely contagious and potentially fatal. Individuals who experience persistent symptoms that increase in severity need to seek medical attention to prevent further illness and potential complications.

The molecular structure of the Coronavirus contributes to its ability to enter its host. Composed of proteins, the structure of the Coronavirus is comprised of a spike, nucleocapsid, envelope, and membrane. The presence of glycoproteins promotes the virus’ ability to bind to the host's cells and mutate. It has been suggested that the virus’ ability to mutate is what makes it so contagious. Reinfection is another characteristic associated with illnesses of the family Coronaviridae.

When active during the winter and early spring, the Coronavirus is thought to be responsible for a majority of cases of the common cold. The virus’ ability to mutate and reinfect are most evident during cold season when individuals who come down with a cold may get better and then come down with the same cold a second and third time. Conscientiousness about preventing the spread of germs is essential to breaking the potentially cyclical nature of the common cold.


Human coronavirus (HCoV) is a secondary group of viruses in the Coronavirus family. Research suggests that this secondary group plays a role in the development of respiratory disease. HCoV has been documented as being the exclusive cause for illnesses such as bronchitis, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia.

Similar to bronchitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, bronchiolitis is an inflammation of bronchioles, or small passages in the lungs. This viral infection affects children and infants during the fall and winter months. Though treatment is generally not necessary, in cases when the child is extremely ill, antiviral medications may be administered. A child with bronchiolitis may experience fever, wheezing, or shortness of breath. A diagnosis is generally confirmed by testing the child's nasal fluid and conducting a chest x-ray.

As with other respiratory disorders, pneumonia results from an inflammation of the lung. Symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, and cough can be indicative of pneumonia. A diagnosis is made through a variety of tests including a complete blood count (CBC), a CT scan of the chest area, and culture test of the individual’s sputum, the mucus-like substance discharged with heavy coughing. Some cases of pneumonia require hospitalization, while less severe cases may only require the administration of antibiotics.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a serious form of pneumonia that results in acute respiratory distress. Potentially fatal, SARS is a highly contagious condition that was first described in early 2003 by a World Health Organization (WHO) doctor who later succumbed to the illness. An individual who has SARS releases contaminants into the air when she or he coughs or sneezes. These contaminated droplets are the main vehicle of transmission. Symptoms manifest within two to 10 days of coming into contact with an ill individual or contaminated object.

Individuals with SARS may experience symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, runny nose, and sore throat. Tests used to diagnose SARS include a CT scan of the chest, complete blood count (CBC), and chest x-ray. Treatment for SARS includes hospitalization in isolation, the administration of antibiotic and antiviral medications, and steroids to reduce lung inflammation. In severe cases, oxygen may be administered in addition to mechanical ventilation, or artificial breathing support. Complications associated with SARS include respiratory, heart, and liver failure.


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