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What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus that was identified in December 2019. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Human coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. They are common and often cause mild illnesses, such as the common cold. But they can also cause more serious illnesses.

COVID-19 is a serious health threat, and the situation is evolving daily.

Although much remains unknown about COVID-19 (coronavirus), it’s clear that elderly people, those with other health conditions and people with compromised immune systems have a higher likelihood of severe illness. This includes people with lung cancer. But taking some basic precautions can lower your risk and improve your well-being.

COVID-19 and lung Cancer? 

Compared with the general population, people with lung cancer are at higher risk of developing more serious COVID-19 illness. As a group, they are older and have poorer overall health, and many are taking medications that suppress the immune system. Many chemotherapy medications and targeted therapies for lung cancer can cause neutropenia, or depletion of immune system white blood cells that fight infection.

When you look at who’s been most profoundly ill, it tends to be people who are older, in their 60s, 70s and 80s, as you get older, your immune system doesn’t function as well. In cancer patients on chemotherapy, people with solid organ transplants or bone marrow transplants and those who use high-dose steroids for autoimmune diseases, the risk will likely be more severe. They may shed the virus for longer. They may be more likely to develop pneumonia and more likely to die. We don’t know until we have more information, but many of us have concerns about that.

People with a weakened immune system may be unable to fight off the virus, or they may develop an abnormal excessive immune response known as a cytokine storm. Paradoxically, immune suppression can sometimes mean milder early symptoms, such as fever, even as the virus and the body’s response to it ravage the lungs.

With other respiratory viruses, immune-suppressed patients often don’t present with the classical symptoms. The symptoms may be more subtle, so we have to have more awareness. Oftentimes their initial symptoms may be less prominent, but the level of complex disease may be more severe.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is most commonly spread from a person who is infected through:
  • respiratory droplets that come out of the nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • close personal contact, such as hugging or shaking hands
  • touching something that the droplets have landed on, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hand

Taking Precautions

There are currently no vaccines available to protect you against COVID-19. Experts recommend that everyone take common-sense precautions to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus – the same ones recommended to prevent seasonal flu:
  • Avoid close contact with other people, meaning within about one meter.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly and often for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially with unwashed hands
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hands.
  • Use cleaning products to disinfect objects and surfaces you commonly touch, such as doorknobs, countertops, phones and toys.
  • Get the flu vaccine. Older people should also consider getting vaccinated against pneumonia.
  • Stay home if you are feeling sick to avoid spreading germs to others.
  • Practise social distancing, even if you are feeling well.
Common symptoms include:
  • fever
  • tiredness
  • dry cough

Other symptoms include:
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • aches and pains
  • sore throat
  • and very few people will report diarrhoea, nausea or a runny nose

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms can be very mild or more serious. It may take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after someone is exposed to COVID-19.

People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should self-isolate and contact their medical provider or a COVID-19 information line for advice on testing and referral. People with fever, cough or difficulty breathing should call their doctor and seek medical attention.

Some people who are infected with COVID-19 don’t have any symptoms.

What should I do if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

If you start having symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever, a cough or breathing problems:

  • stay home to isolate yourself from others, and try to stay in a separate room if you live with other people
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, and immediately dispose of tissues in the trash.
  • If you think you may have been exposed to the coronavirus, contact a health care provider promptly if you develop a fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
  • Before you go to a clinic or hospital, call ahead so the staff can take appropriate precautions.
  • Wearing a face mask can stop the spread of droplets that can transmit the virus to others.

People living with lung cancer may benefit from extra precautions. Stay in communication with your cancer team, and keep up to date on new developments. Let them know if you have questions or concerns, especially if you have new symptoms or were recently exposed to someone who is ill.

Most important, don’t panic! We’re all expecting this to be a prolonged and complicated process. The best thing people can do is focus on ways that they can protect themselves because those small things can be enough to provide an extra layer of protection for everyone.

The situation is changing rapidly and country-specific guidance varies. It is important that patients, caregivers, family and workers stay up to date with the guidance specifics for their region by navigating directly to their country’s official health body and visiting that online page directly.

Also see our FAQs for COVID-19 and lung cancer.

For more information:

WHO – The World Health Organization Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak page: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019


The European Commission‘s latest measures, statistics and resources to address the coronavirus.

ECCO – European Cancer Organization: 

ECDC: The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (EU) Coronavirus topic page: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/coronavirus


ESMO – European Society of Medical Oncology: