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COVID-19 and secondary bacterial infections: find out what the technical terms and acronyms in the news really mean

Colin Garner ANTRUK announcements, Coronavirus COVID-19, Learn more

There are a lot of different technical terms being thrown around in the news about COVID-19 at the moment. Just as you think you finally understand something, a new word pops up that seems to complicate things further. Take a look at our coronavirus jargon buster to help you get to grips with pandemic terminology.

The virus

ARDS: (acute respiratory distress syndrome); a syndrome is a known collection of symptoms. ARDS kills 30-40% of people who get it. It is estimated that 1% of people with coronavirus will get ARDS.

Asymptomatic: this is when someone is infected with the virus, but does not get sick or show any symptoms at all. This has been predicted to be true for 30-50% of people who catch the current virus. Although they will not become ill, they are capable of passing it on to others.

Coronavirus: a group of viruses that includes the virus causing the current pandemic, as well as those that cause the common cold.

COVID-19: the name of the disease caused by the specific coronavirus that is causing the current pandemic.

Epidemic: this is an outbreak of a certain disease or health-related event that is greater than you would normally see, and all within a specific location, such as a town or country.

Incubation period: this is the period of time between a person becoming infected with the virus and when they first show symptoms. This is estimated at around three weeks for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. During the three weeks between infection and getting sick, the person is capable of passing the virus on to others (through shedding it into the environment). This is why quarantine is so important.

Pandemic: an outbreak of a disease or health-related event that is greater than you would normally see, but over a much larger region or a number of regions, for example one that occurs on different continents at the same time.

SARS-CoV-2: this is the scientific name for the virus that causes COVID-19. This name reflects that the current outbreak is caused by a virus very genetically similar to the one that caused the SARS outbreak. The diseases caused by these two viruses are not the same.

Shedding: this is when a person who is infected with the virus is ‘shedding’ the virus into their immediate environment, and therefore spreading contagious material.

Secondary bacterial infections

Secondary infection: this is an infection that affects someone while they are undergoing treatment for a different condition (such as an infection, illness or injury). For example, you could have a patient with the COVID-19 infection, which is caused by a virus, and they may get a secondary infection caused by bacteria, such as MRSA, while undergoing treatment for COVID-19.

You can read more about COVID-19 and secondary infections and find out more about the research, facts and figures in this area so far.

Bacterial infection: is an infection caused by bacteria. Other types of infection include those caused by viruses (such as COVID-19) and fungus, such as thrush.

Antibiotics: drugs that treat bacterial infections.

Antibiotic resistance: this is where the bacteria are not killed by antibiotics when you would usually expect them to be. Bacteria can acquire resistance to antibiotics in a number of ways.

Microbe: this is a generic term used to describe microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. It is not specifically used to describe organisms that cause diseases – microbes are everywhere, and some are even beneficial.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR): is the resistance that microbes can have to antimicrobial drugs. For example, this term is often used to mean the same as bacterial resistance, which is where bacteria have a resistance to the use of antibiotics (see also antibiotic resistance).

Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP): is pneumonia caused by the use of a ventilator in a healthcare setting.

Pneumonia: swelling/inflammation of the lung or lungs. There are many things that cause pneumonia, with the most common being infections.

Common health terms

Comorbidity: this is one or more additional conditions that patient has at the same time as the primary condition being considered. For example, a COVID-19 patient may have comorbidities such as diabetes and/or a bacterial infection. In this case, COVID-19 is the primary condition being considered at the time, even though they may have had the other conditions for longer.

Ventilator: a hospital device for delivering air into a patient’s lungs. Air is supplied through a tube that goes into the mouth or nose and down into the windpipe.

What does ‘flatten the curve’ mean?

The number of cases of COVID-19 that require treatment in hospital each week is often shown on a graph. The shape of the graph is curved, starting low then reaching a peak. At peak point it might platea – continue on at the same, flat level. Or, it may begin to drop again – see blue line, A, in diagram.flatten the curve graph data in a coronavirus jargon buster

This gives a peaked shape, where the top of the peak is the maximum number of cases or deaths. To flatten the curve means to stop this peak from rising too high all at once. While the same number of people may still get sick, it will be over a much longer period of time. The green line, B, in the diagram shows a flattened curve. This is what might be expected when using measures such as social distancing.

This aims to prevent or delay the spread of the virus. This will limit the number of cases requiring hospitalisation at the peak of the curve. Doing this will help ensure cases do not exceed the number of available hospital beds.

Find out more

You can find out more about the worrying link between COVID-19 and secondary bacterial infections on our COVID-19 news page. The more people get sick, and the more people need to spend time in hospital, the greater their risk is of contracting a secondary infection. With many bacteria now resistant to multiple different antibiotics, our work is more important than ever. Please consider making a donation to support our work.