What are coronaviruses?

Common human coronaviruses usually only cause mild to moderate respiratory tract illnesses, such as the common cold. On rare occasions, new coronaviruses such as COVID-19 emerge. These may cause outbreaks and serious illness.

Key points about coronavirus

  1. Coronaviruses are a large and diverse family of viruses that include viruses known to cause illness in animals. Sometimes these infections can be passed to humans.
  2. Most people get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime. Young children are most likely to get infected. 
  3. Many coronaviruses cause a mild disease, such as the common cold, and don't need specific treatment.
  4. However, in rare cases, coronaviruses can cause serious outbreaks. Coronaviruses have been responsible for outbreaks such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and the current novel coronavirus pandemic (originally called 2019-nCoV and now officially called COVID-19). Find out about COVID-19.
  5. There are vaccines available to protect you against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Find out about the COVID-19 vaccines.
  6. Good personal hygiene and avoiding people with respiratory illness can reduce your chances of getting any of the coronaviruses.

What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a type of virus that can affect humans and animals. It's named coronavirus because the virus has crown-like spikes on its surface ('corona' meaning crown).

There are different types of coronavirus and most people will get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime. It usually only causes a mild disease such as the common cold. Young children are most likely to get infected. 

Coronavirus infection is much more common in animals than in humans. Sometimes, the coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and infect humans, becoming a new human coronavirus.

What are the symptoms of human coronavirus infection?

Most common types of human coronavirus usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory-tract illnesses, like the common cold. These illnesses usually only last for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include:

  • runny nose
  • headache
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • fever
  • a general feeling of being unwell.

Other types of coronavirus can cause more severe illness. Infants, older people and people with medical conditions such as heart disease, respiratory disease or weakened immune systems are most at risk of getting more severe problems such as pneumonia or bronchitis.


Coronaviruses have been responsible for outbreaks such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and the current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

  • COVID-19 symptoms range from mild ones similar to a cold to more severe pneumonia-like symptoms. Read more about the COVID-19 outbreak
  • MERS symptoms usually include fever, cough and shortness of breath, which often worsens to pneumonia. About 3 or 4 out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died. MERS cases continue to occur, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula. Read more about MERS
  • SARS symptoms often included fever, chills and body aches, which usually progressed to pneumonia. No human cases of SARS have been reported anywhere in the world since 2004. Read more about SARS

How is human coronavirus infection spread?

Human coronaviruses are most commonly spread from an infected person to others through:

  • the air by coughing and sneezing
  • close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, people usually get infected with common human coronaviruses in autumn and winter. However, you can get infected at any time of the year. 

Sometimes coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and make people sick and become a new human coronavirus. This is often how outbreaks occur.

How is human coronavirus infection treated?

There are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses. Most people with common human coronavirus illness will recover on their own. If you are mildly sick, drink plenty of liquids and stay home and rest.

If you are concerned about your symptoms, call your healthcare provider or ring the Healthline team (for free) on 0800 358 5453 or +64 9 358 5453 for international SIMS.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, please follow the latest advice on the New Zealand Government's COVID-19 website.

How can I prevent the spread of human coronavirus?

If you have cold-like symptoms, you can help protect others by doing the following:

  • stay home while you are sick
  • avoid close contact with others
  • cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then dispose of the tissue in the rubbish bin straight away
  • wash your hands and clean and disinfect objects and surfaces after you have coughed or sneezed.

Learn more about stopping the spread of COVID-19.

How can I protect myself from human coronavirus?

You can get a COVID-19 vaccine, and your best protection is to be up-to-date with your vaccinations including all the boosters you are eligible for as they become available. In addition you may be able to reduce your risk of infection by doing the following:

  • wash your hands regularly with soap and water and dry well
  • avoid touching your face with unclean hands
  • avoid close contact, including not sharing personal items such as utensils and towels, with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing
  • wear a mask
  • ventilate home and work spaces. 

Image: Canva

Learn more about protecting yourself against COVID-19.


  1. Coronavirus World Health Organization, Switzerland, 2020
  2. About human coronaviruses Centres for Disease Control, US, 2019

Reviewed by

Dr Li-Wern Yim is a travel doctor with a background in general practice. She studied medicine at the University of Otago, and has a postgraduate diploma in travel medicine (Otago). She also studied tropical medicine in Uganda and Tanzania, and holds a diploma from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. She currently works in clinical travel medicine in Auckland.

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Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Li-Wern Yim, Travel Doctor Last reviewed: 25 Jan 2020