The brand-new coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, is uncharted territory for everyone, so it can feel overwhelming to think about how to prepare for a scenario in which you actually get sick. In most cases, people who get COVID-19 have mild symptoms and can recover at home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But how exactly do you do that, and what precautions should you take to avoid infecting others? Here’s everything you need to know, straight from the experts and federal officials.
First Things First: Stock Up Now If You’re Still Healthy
Experts say it’s a good idea to prepare for the possibility that you will come down with COVID-19 at some point. That said, there may be certain items you want to stock up on in your home so you’re not in a bind if symptoms strike, says Jake Deutsch, M.D., emergency medicine physician and co-founder and clinical director of Cure Urgent Care in New York City.
Items he suggests you make sure you have on hand to get through the illness include:
- Cold and flu medications, including acetaminophen
- Vitamin C and zinc lozenges
- Hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap—“because it’s still extremely important for people to maintain that strict hygiene,” Dr. Deutsch says.
Make sure you also have a working thermometer so you can monitor your fever.
In addition to these items, it’s also wise to make sure you have two weeks’ worth of food and other household goods, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., a board-certified internist practicing in New York, New York.
“Purchase non-perishable food, paper goods, and other items you need to keep your household running for a few weeks,” he suggests. “Doing so is more to avoid being out in crowded places than fear of a shortage of merchandise.” He adds that stocking up on Gatorade can be a good idea too—“You may need to replenish electrolytes.”
What to Do at the First Signs of Illness
Maybe you woke up with a dry cough. Or you started to get chills and took your temperature—and boom, it’s more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. What steps should you take first?
“First of all, don’t panic,” says Dr. Deutsch. “Second of all, treat it as if you were treating a cold or flu. The majority of people are going to have minimal symptoms and will have a full recovery and people need to understand that rushing to seek medical care might expose others as opposed to self-treatment and isolation.”
Yep—that means you don’t necessarily need to rush to your doctor’s office at the first signs of a COVID-19 infection. If your symptoms are mild and you’re not someone at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19—namely, older adults and those with chronic conditions like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes—then there’s not much your doctor is going to be able to do for you anyway.
So no, in this case, you don’t need to get tested—you just have to wait it out at home and do your best not to infect others.
“Not everybody with symptoms needs to be tested because unfortunately, that will overwhelm the resources we have,” says Dr. Deutsch. “Once we have mass testing resources, we’ll be able to change that dynamic and offer more testing. For now, just because you may have signs of COVID-19, it doesn’t change the treatment—it just is giving people a false sense of hope if they don’t get a test. Even if someone gets a test back and it’s negative, they still need to be responsible and isolate and assume that everybody is at high risk for getting an infection.”
Tips for At-Home Recovery
So, if most people who get COVID-19 can recover at home, how exactly do you do that? Again, it helps to know what to expect. Most people who get sick from COVID-19 experience a fever and a cough, according to the CDC. You’ll probably feel pretty crappy for at least a couple of days.
“This means taking medications for cold and flu-type symptoms, like decongestants and expectorants, making sure you’re closely monitoring your fever, and of course plenty of rest,” says Dr. Deutsch. “Just the same course of action you would take normally with the flu at home.”
Think about what kinds of things you usually do to feel better when you have these symptoms with other illnesses, like the flu, and start taking care of yourself with those tried-and-true strategies.
“Whatever makes you feel better in terms of lots of warm liquids, having more rest than normal, stocking up on vitamins like vitamin C and zinc in order to help boost your immune system, and even simple tricks like using Vick’s Vapor Rub to help open up some chest congestion and deal with the cough can be beneficial,” says Dr. Deutsch.
Isolation Is a Key Part of At-Home Recovery
The CDC advises anyone who is mildly ill with COVID-19 to stay home unless you need medical care. In fact, self-isolation when you have—or think you have—COVID-19 is the “number one” precaution you should take, says Dr. Deutsch.
“If you think that you need to be tested, you probably have COVID-19, and that means you need to be isolated,” he says. “Even though you may not have significant symptoms, there is a high possibility that you could have been exposed and have a mild infection. Treating it as if you’re potentially able to change the course of this by isolating and social distancing—that’s the biggest message, because you’re going to get better. Most people are going to have mild symptoms, but what everybody has the ability to do is to affect the course of this by making a very clear decision to isolate and stay free of others.”
If you live with others who are healthy, it’s important to separate yourself from them as much as possible—especially if your family members or roommates are in those high-risk groups. Designate a specific room in your home, like a bedroom, as your “sick room,” and confine yourself to it, says the CDC. If you have the means to use a separate bathroom from the rest of the people in your home as well, do so. Of course, not everyone has this capability in their households—but it’s important to distance yourself as much as possible and have everyone in your home take extra care with things like handwashing, cleaning, and disinfecting.
The CDC also recommends the following precautions for those who are sick:
- Don’t share personal household items. If you live with others, make sure you’re not sharing things like dishes, drinking glasses, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with them to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Make sure these items are washed thoroughly with soap and water after use.
Limit contact with your pets. If you have animals in your home, restrict your contact with them just like you would with humans. There have been no reports of pets or other animals getting sick with COVID-19, but because this virus is so new and researchers are still learning about it every day, it’s an important precaution to take. This may mean having another member of your household take care of your pet while you’re sick. If you don’t have anyone to help you care for your pets, make sure you wash your hands before and after interacting with them.
Wear a facemask. If you’re sick, wear a facemask when you’re around other people, when sharing a vehicle to get to a medical appointment, and when entering any health care facility. If you have someone caring for you while you are sick, they should also wear a facemask when they enter the room where you are isolating. However, it may be tricky to find a face mask right now because of high demand. The CDC states that in settings where masks aren’t available, health care providers may use “homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort. Caution should be exercised when considering this option.”
Practice the usual hygiene precautions. Make sure you’re washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, especially after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, and before and after handling food. You can use hand sanitizer too, as long as it contains at least 60% alcohol. Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Keep your home clean and disinfected. It’s your job to clean and disinfect any high-touch surfaces in your isolation area every day, says the CDC. That means things like bathroom counters, phones and other electronic devices, bedside tables, toilets, doorknobs, and remote controls. Put someone else in your home in charge of daily cleaning of high-touch surfaces outside of your isolation area. You can find a list of effective disinfectants on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
When Can I Stop Self-Isolation?
You’re feeling all better, and it’s been 14 days since the onset of your symptoms. Is it safe to leave your isolation area yet?
That decision is one you should make in consultation with your health care provider and local and state health departments, says the CDC. That’s why it’s important to keep in contact with your doc throughout the duration of your illness. They can help you make the call on when to stop self-quarantining.
In general, the CDC says you can stop home isolation under these conditions:
If you won’t be tested to determine if you’re still contagious, you can stop home isolation if these three things have happened:
- You have had no fever in the last 72 hours, without the use of medicine that reduces fevers.
- Your other symptoms have improved.
- At least seven days have passed since your symptoms first began.
If you will be tested to determine if you are still contagious, you can stop home isolation if these three things have happened:
- You no longer have a fever, without the use of fever-reducing medication.
- Your other symptoms have improved.
- You’ve had two negative tests in a row, 24 hours apart.
Again, make sure you’re following guidance from your local health department and your health care provider.
When to Seek Medical Attention
If you need to seek medical care because of COVID-19, make sure you call ahead before going to see your health care provider or going to the emergency department, the CDC says. This gives the staff a chance to protect themselves and others. It’s also important to avoid public transportation, ride-sharing, and taxis as a way to get to your health care appointments.
There are certain people who should seek medical care right away because of COVID-19, says Dr. Deutsch.
“People who are having severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or are unable to perform normal functions like walking, [should seek medical attention],” he says. “This is particularly important in people who have other underlying medical problems such as diabetes or kidney failure or are immunocompromised.”
You should also seek care immediately if you show any of the emergency signs of COVID-19, he says.
“The biggest complication is respiratory symptoms like severe difficulty breathing, fainting, dusky colored skin and lips (which could suggest there isn’t enough oxygen getting to vital organs),” he says. “Those are extreme situations and very unlikely for otherwise healthy individuals.”