What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?

We explain what coronavirus (COVID-19) is, and what you should do if you have symptoms.

We know this is a worrying time and there is lots of information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) to take in. This page explains what coronavirus is, and what to do if you have symptoms.

If you have any questions or worries about coronavirus and how this may affect you and your treatment, you can speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a type of virus called a coronavirus. It is a new virus that affects your lungs and can cause long term damage to other organs as well. Long term damage is called long COVID. It is very infectious, which means it can spread quickly from one person to another.

Symptoms of coronavirus include:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new, continuous cough – coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours. If you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual
  • a change to or loss of your normal sense of taste or smell.

It is now known that around 1 in 3 people with COVID-19 do not have symptoms. But people with no symptoms can still infect others. So it is still very important to be careful and practise social distancing with people outside your household.

What should I do if I think I have coronavirus?

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, stay at home (self-isolate) and get a PCR test. If the test result is positive, you must self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms started. Don’t go to your GP, pharmacy or hospital.

Use these websites to find out what to do if you get symptoms, based on where you live:

Taking a test

There are two types of test for coronavirus – the PCR test and the lateral flow test.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, you should apply for a coronavirus PCR test on the NHS website. The tests are either home test kits or a test at a drive through testing centre. The test needs to be done in the first 5 days of having symptoms. Once you have taken the test, it is sent off to a lab.

Lateral flow tests are home test kits which show results within half an hour. You can get these from pharmacies, coronavirus test centres, or your employer.

Lateral flow tests are not as accurate as PCR tests. So if you think you have coronavirus, you should get a PCR test. Read more about tests on the NHS website.

If the test result is positive this means you have coronavirus, and you should continue to self-isolate. The NHS will contact you by email, text or phone as part of the contact tracing service. This aims to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The NHS will ask you where you’ve been recently and who you’ve been in close contact with. They will then contact these people and tell them what to do.

Contact tracing

If someone you have been in close contact with recently tests positive for coronavirus, the NHS will also contact you as there is a chance you might get coronavirus. They will tell you to take a PCR test. You will need to self-isolate for 10 days from the day you were last in contact with the person.

However, if you live in England you don’t need to self-isolate if you live in the same household as someone with coronavirus or have been contacted by the NHS test and trace if:

  • you have had both doses of the vaccine (and it’s more than 14 days since your last dose)
  • you are under the age of 18 years 6 months
  • you can’t have a vaccine for medical reasons.

If you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland, you don’t need to self-isolate if you’ve had both vaccines, have had a negative PCR test and don’t have symptoms.

In Wales, if you are contacted by contact tracing, you will need to self-isolate for 10 days, even if you have had a negative PCR test.

Read more about contact tracing.

Where to find more information about coronavirus

There is a lot of information available from the NHS and government about coronavirus.

Updated: 19 August 2021