Coronavirus in English

Essential English Vocabulary to talk about the Coronavirus

Lesson by Kerin.

Originally posted March 14 2020. Updated Feb 2022

Learn how to talk about the Coronavirus in English (Covid-19)

Everywhere we turn we can’t help but read about, hear about and talk about the coronavirus. 

It is affecting all of us in some way and for many of us it is a stressful, surreal and worrisome time.

If you need to have conversations in English about the situation, whether for work, with friends and family or medical professionals, this guide will provide you with some of the most essential vocabulary you’ll need to speak about it and understand it .

I’ve split the guide into 5 categories: 

How to talk about:

  1. the virus
  2. symptoms
  3. restrictions
  4. trends
  5. behaviour

Lastly, we’ll look an an extract from a newspaper article as an example of how some of these words are used.

A guide to the most common terms being used to talk about the coronavirus in English

How to talk about the virus

Contagious (adjective): describing a disease that can pass from person to person, usually by direct contact; describing a person with such a disease. 

> The disease is highly contagious.

> Patients who are still contagious are kept in isolation.

Diagnose (verb) / Diagnosis (noun): to diagnose an illness means to identify it after examining the symptoms. The diagnosis is the identification of an illness.

> The doctor can properly diagnose the cause of your symptoms.

> If you’re not happy with the diagnosis you can always get a second opinion.

Disease (noun): illness or sickness

see contagious for example

Droplets (noun): the spray produced when people cough or sneeze. Droplets can spread diseases (like the coronavirus) 

Wearing a mask can help guard against the disease carried in droplets when infected people sneeze or cough.

Elderly (adjective): old or ageing. When we say ‘the elderly population’ we are referring to people aged 65 and over.

The elderly population are the most vulnerable to coronavirus. 

Epidemic (noun): occurrence of a particular disease in a large number of people in a particular area. 

> There are already some conspiracy theories going around regarding the coronavirus epidemic.

Immune system (noun): the organs and processes of the body that provide resistance to infection and toxins.

For people who already have a compromised immune system, the possibility of infection may present serious health risks.

Incubation period (noun): the time from a person’s first exposure to a disease to the time when symptoms develop. 

> When they know the incubation period they will know how long to keep people in quarantine.

Infect (verb) / Infectious (adjective): to infect means  to affect a human or animal with a disease-causing organism. You can be ‘infected’ with a virus.  Infectious describes a disease that can be transmitted to others.

> Can the coronavirus infect our pets? 

> There have been several outbreaks of infectious diseases recently.

Outbreak (noun): a sudden occurrence of something unwelcome (such as war or disease.)

See infectious for example

Pandemic (noun): occurrence of a particular disease throughout a whole country or the world. 

The coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Pathogen (noun): a micro-organism or germ such as a bacterium or virus that can cause disease. 

> Fortunately, most pathogens are dealt with by the body’s immune system.

Person-to-person (adjective): describing the spread of a disease from one person to another, typically through touch including shaking hands, kissing, sexual intercourse etc. 

> In February an infected British man returning home from Italy transmitted the virus to his wife, marking the first known example of person-to-person spread of the virus in the UK.

Screening (noun): testing of people for the presence of a disease. 

> For COVID-19 the first step in screening is usually taking a person’s temperature followed by taking a swab to be analysed for the presence of the virus.

Spread (verb): transmission of a pathogen causing disease. 

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

Swab test (noun): a small piece of soft material used for taking a small amount of substance from a body, or the substance itself that can then be tested.

See screening for example

Transmit (verb) / Transmission (noun): transfer of a disease from animal to human or from human to human.

See person-to-person example.

Treatment (noun): medical care given to a patient for an illness or injury.

There is currently no specific antiviral treatment for the coronavirus. 

Underlying health issue or condition: the definition of underlying refers to something lying beneath, or the basic or root cause of something. Underlying health issue means existing symptoms or illness.

Older adults and travellers with underlying health issues should avoid situations that put them at increased risk for more severe disease.

How to talk about symptoms of the Coronavirus in English

Symptom (n): a physical or mental sign indicating the presence of a disease

Symptomatic (adj): showing symptoms of a disease

Asymptomatic (adj): producing or showing no symptoms

Body aches (n): unpleasant pain in the body

Common flu symptoms: include sneezing, runny nose, cough and so on

Cough: (pronounced coff) an act of forcing air out of your lungs through your throat with a short, loud sound, often unwillingly

Fatigue (n): extreme tiredness

Fever (n): high temperature

Lethargic (adj): having little energy or desire to do anything

Painful (adj): causing pain

Running a temperature (Idiom): to have a fever

To have a runny nose (Idiom): when liquid comes out of your nose because of a cold, allergy, or crying

Sneeze (n): when you sneeze, air and often small drops of liquid suddenly come out of your nose and mouth in a way you cannot control

Shortness of breath: the feeling of not getting enough air when you are breathing

Shallow breaths: breathing in which you only take a small amount of air into your lungs with each breath

Tightness in your chest: an unpleasant sensation of tightness, heaviness or pressure in the chest.

coronavirus in English

How to talk about restrictions

A ban (noun): an official order that prevents something from happening

Vietnam have announced an immediate travel ban.

Border restrictions (noun): measures taken by a country or a bloc of countries to monitor its borders in order to regulate the movement of people, animals and goods

Decree (noun): an official order that has the force of law

> The decree issued by the Italian government on Sunday officially places the entire country on lockdown.

Fine (noun): an amount of money that has to be paid as a punishment for not obeying a rule or law

> The police are authorised to issue fines to anyone disobeying the decree.

Isolation (noun): the condition of being alone

Lockdown (noun): a situation in which people are not allowed to enter or leave a building or area freely because of an emergency

> Italy are in lockdown until the 3rd of April.

Quarantine (noun): a period of time during which an animal or person that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread

When you enter the country, you may be subject to quarantine for two weeks.

How to talk about trends – Coronavirus in English

Flatten the curve

The phrase refers to a so-called epidemic curve that is commonly used to visualize responses to disease outbreaks and illustrates why public and individual efforts to contain the spread of the virus are crucial.

Flattening A Pandemic’s Curve: Why Staying Home Now Can Save Lives

Coronavirus in English


A Movement to Stop the COVID-19 Pandemic. The hashtag slogan is trending on social media and is encouraging people to stay home and follow the Self-Quarantine Manifesto.

to ramp up

A large increase in activity, speed or in the level of something

“Italy ramps up lockdown”


Trending (adj) currently popular or widely discussed online, especially on social media websites

#staythefuckhome is trending right now.

Slow down (phrasal verb) If something slows down or is if something slows it down, it starts to move or happen more slowly.

Some scientists predict the warming temperatures will slow down the virus.

Speed up (phrasal verb) move or happen faster

Some leaders are calling for pledging to speed up testing for the coronavirus.

How to about behaviour

Hoarding supplies: accumulate large amounts of objects deemed necessary for survival (in this case mostly food items, such as non-perishables, dried foods and canned foods … and of course toilet paper!)

> In the wake of the coronavirus, Americans have been hoarding toilet paper.

Overburden (verb): to give someone more work or problems than they can deal with

> Many people are speculating about how the virus’s danger grows when a health system is overburdened.

Remote working: refers to a job that is done outside of the office. (Home working: working from home)

Home working is being encouraged in order to make it easier for people to self-isolate.

Self-isolate/ Self-quarantine(verb): stay at home as a precautionary measure to stop the spread of the virus.

See example above

What’s the difference between isolation and quarantine?

While isolation serves the same purpose as quarantine, it’s reserved for those who are already sick. It keeps infected people away from healthy people to prevent the sickness from spreading. 

Social-distancing: a term that epidemiologists are using to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully stymie community transmission of the virus.

Solidarity (noun): unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.

Balcony singing in solidarity spreads across Italy during lockdown.

Stock up (on something) (Phrasal verb): to buy a large amount of something so that you will have enough for the future

Supermarkets are running low as people stock up on food supplies.

Let’s look at an example of how we talk about the Coronavirus in English

In this extract we see some of these words in action. (Notice the collocations I’ve highlighted too!)

Article from The Guardian: Coronavirus Symptoms: what are they and should I see a doctor



It’s impossible to cover every word or expression that you may be hearing when it comes to the coronavirus. This guide is intended to give you the most essential advanced English vocabulary to help you understand when people are talking about the coronavirus and to help you talk about it English yourself. 

If you have any questions about the vocabulary above or if you’ve come across any other words or expressions that you haven’t understood, leave us a comment below. 

Lastly, please share with anyone you think may benefit from this article. 

Stay well and stay safe!

Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals or offering any advice. The intention of this guide is to provide you with vocabulary to help you understand what you are reading and hearing about the coronavirus in English.

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6 thoughts on “Essential English Vocabulary to talk about the Coronavirus”

  1. Very helpful!
    I’d have extremely appreciated Kerin’s pronunciation of the text.
    I always find her readings very useful!
    Thank you, Kerin!

    1. Hi Irene! Thank you for your comment. It’s a good idea … I’ll add it to my ‘to-do’ list 😂
      I’m working on a post for this week about British and American English and I’m definitely going to do it with audio. Stay safe!

  2. I have searched for this kind of vocabulary list for even a month and I could not find any reliable source. Thank you so much for your great work so far. It’s very useful.

    1. Hi Sam, thank you for taking the time to leave me this comment, I appreciate it a lot. I’m really glad to have helped. Keep safe and well.

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