Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I’m really worried about this new virus from China; What should I do to protect myself?

A) The new corona type virus from China (also known as 2019-nCoV and the Wuhan virus due to its perceived point of origin) is causing wide spread fear not only in China but in many other countries as well.

A case in point is that our small store in rural Ontario has already sold out of the N-95 type protective masks and we are unable to order more due to shortages everywhere. But as seems to always be the case, we tend to over exaggerate the threat of new risks while underestimating the perils of menaces we have learned to live with such as the influenza virus (flu) or driving at speeds above the legal limits.

As an example, the corona virus known as SARS still lives on in infamy 16 years later having claimed the lives of 44 Canadians. The flu in contrast is responsible for the deaths of between 500 to 1,500 Canadians every year and yet many of us fail to protect ourselves and our loved ones by agreeing to receive an annual flu shot.

This is not to say this new virus is not anything to worry about. It is very contagious and is a more significant virus in terms of its impact on our health than many others. As well, the information about it is evolving daily as are the recommendations about what we should do to keep ourselves safe. But as of now, here are the latest facts and recommendations.

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses named for the crown-like spike on its surface when looked at under a microscope. Unlike some of the memes that you may have seen, it has nothing to do with brand of beer, Corona. There are a total of 7 identified versions of these viruses including SARS and MERS but not all are as dangerous as these, witness the fact that the common cold is also a coronavirus. They are easily spread through the air through coughing or sneezing or by touching an infected surface of an object (such as a door handle or another person’s hand) and then touching your eyes nose or mouth.

The common symptoms are the standard ones you would associate with the common cold such as a headache, runny nose, sore throat, cough and a fever. The main risk to life is the possibility that this infection can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome or kidney failure, all of which can lead to permanent declines in our health or even death.  At this point there are, as of February the 4th, 5 confirmed cases in Canada (including one in London) and more than 24,000 world-wide with a reported mortality count of over 490 so far.

Authorities believe Canada will be hit far less hard than it was with SARS for 2 reasons. One, our health care facilities and policies are far better prepared than they were when SARS first reached our borders which led to some initial mishandling of the situation and as a result a more prolific spread of the virus . Second, this new virus differs from the SARS virus in that it seems to have a shorter incubation stage.

Wuhan seems to produce symptoms within 4 days of exposure whereas SARS was as long as 10 days. This is critical because during the incubation phase of a virus, patients are symptom free but may (this point seems to be up for debate at his point in time) still be capable of spreading the illness to others they congregate with at work/ school/ retail outlets since they feel perfectly fine.  As such, the shorter the incubation period, the easier it is to limit the spread of a virus if, once again, it proves to be able to be passed along before one actually feels unwell.

As of now, the focus should be on what we can do to prevent getting this nasty bug. First off, there is no need to panic. We have lived with a far more dangerous threat in the flu for decades and most of us don’t alter our lives drastically to account for it. The odds of catching this in Canada, at least at this point in time, are extremely unlikely. As well, the vast majority who do contract it will be absolutely fine in the long run.

Like the flu, it is usually only the most vulnerable amongst us (i.e. the elderly, the very young and those with impaired immune systems from certain other medical conditions or the medications they receive) who are at risk of getting really sick. At this point, it is believed that only 3 in 100 people who are infected will likely pass away from the illness.

N-95 masks, if you can get one, are not necessary at this point unless you are sick and at home trying not to affect other family members or trying not to get an illness from someone you live with (or perhaps in a crowded facility that may be deemed a higher risk location such as a health care centre or airport). The reality is that masks don’t fit many of us properly (i.e. kids are those with facial hair) rendering them useless as many of us reach under them constantly to adjust them thereby spreading the germs to their hands. As well, they are a pain to wear. They make breathing tougher and it is difficult to communicate while wearing one.

The main key to prevention is far from high tech, it is simply to establish a practice of frequent and properly done hand washing. A 20 second thorough washing of the hands should be done before eating, after coughing or sneezing, after using the washroom or after touching surfaces likely to be unclean.

Another step you can take is to stay home if you are feeling unwell. Even if you don’t believe you are suffering from 2019-nCoV, which you are almost undoubtedly correct in that assessment, you can still spread just about any illness to others. If you’re sick with this or any other virus, there is no specific cure. Just get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and treat the symptoms with possibly acetaminophen, ibuprofen and/or other over the counter remedies. Note that none of these will shorten the duration of your illness, but they can make life more tolerable until you recover.

At the end of the day, be more diligent with your hand-washing and keep checking reputable sources of information to see if the current recommendations change. But still continue to live your life, as locking yourself or your family away makes no sense at all at this point in time. For more information about this or any other health related news, contact your pharmacist.