A comprehensive and expert-backed guide for suspicious symptoms
In normal times, when the air does not hang heavy with a near-apocalyptic level of dread, waking up with a little tickle in the back of your throat is often resolved with a cup of tea and a cough drop. But these are not normal times — and even the most unflappable are susceptible to the concern that minor cold symptoms might mean an infection with Covid-19.
It’s not out of the question that they could. Covid-19 is thought to be spreading widely in communities nationwide, but with very limited testing capacity in most areas, it’s unclear just how much of the virus is in circulation. The good news is that many of these infections are relatively mild and even asymptomatic — so if you are infected, there’s a good chance you’ll be just fine. Here’s what to do if you think you personally have Covid-19.
What does Covid-19 feel like?
The most common early symptoms of Covid-19 infection are fever and cough. About a quarter of adult patients have a cough and/or fatigue, and some have digestive-tract symptoms like nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea. Less common symptoms are body aches and nasal congestion — but even if you have these, Covid-19 “should be a consideration at this time,” says Anna Corey, an infectious disease doctor and assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, because “at this point, we’re seeing so much community spread.”
Lots of other infections can cause these same symptoms: There are many similarities between Covid-19 symptoms and those of the flu, other cold viruses, and even some cases of strep throat. The difference is that this particular virus is new to people’s immune systems — and that may explain why so many people who are infected with it have a more severe form of the infection that can lead to death. (Signs of severe illness include shortness of breath, confusion, chest pressure or tightness, dehydration, and bluish lips. These symptoms are big red flags — if you have any of them, call your doctor or an urgent care or emergency room immediately).
The good news is that many of these infections are relatively mild and even asymptomatic — so if you are infected, there’s a good chance you’ll be just fine.
Younger people can definitely get this severe form of infection: A review of recent data suggested that of 121 Americans with Covid-19 admitted to a intensive unit — the part of the hospital reserved for the hospital’s sickest patients, many of whom need ventilator machines to breathe — half were between the ages of 20 and 64. However, people older than 60, especially if they have chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, are at highest risk for severe infections and death from Covid-19 infection.
Where do I get a test?
Another consequence of this virus’ newness is that developing a test for it is something that’s only taken place in the last few months. And while the World Health Organization has made widespread testing available in many countries, the U.S. decision to develop its own version has resulted in limited access to testing in this country. In most U.S. locations, testing is reserved only for health care workers and vulnerable populations, like elderly and immunosuppressed people.
What do I do if I think I might have it?
All of this adds up to an important piece of advice, says Corey: “Stay out of emergency rooms and urgent care settings if at all possible.” Health care settings like these are places chronically ill people have to be on a semi-regular basis to get care — so visiting one while you’re ill makes it far more likely you’ll spread the infection to these more vulnerable people.
And for what? Because so few locations are currently offering testing, you might go home empty-handed from that health care visit if all you’re there for is a Covid-19 test.
A better plan, says Corey, is to call ahead to your doctor’s office or wherever you plan to go for medical care, and ask what to do. Certain symptoms might make a health care provider want to test you for other conditions — or not.
The exception to that rule, again, is those red flag symptoms. If you’re severely ill, get medical attention immediately by calling your doctor to see if you need to visit the ER or urgent care.
What can you do at home to feel better?
If you’re home with mild illness, do what makes you feel better, and try to stay hydrated. That means drinking enough fluids with a little salt and sugar in them to urinate at least every six hours. If you have an appetite, eat, and get lots of rest and sleep.
Corey says it is not unwise to use acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) for relief of fever and pain (there’s been some debate about using NSAIDs for Covid-19, but most experts say using either as directed is fine). She also says medications like Nyquil can be helpful for getting rest and reducing symptoms.
Most other over-the-counter cough and cold medicines don’t do very much for symptoms of other respiratory infections, and they probably won’t help much with this one, either.
You might have heard that several familiar drugs are being studied to determine whether they might treat or cure Covid-19 infections — some HIV drugs and hydroxychloroquine, a drug commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, are among the compounds being investigated for this purpose. But Corey doesn’t recommend taking these at home if you think you have a Covid-19 infection because of their side effects and the potential for medication interactions.
One of the most important things you can do if you’re home sick with a not-terrible case of possible Covid-19 is to stay home as best you can, and keep a wide berth of any others in your home. Stay in your own room, if you have one, and try to stay at least six feet away from other people. Try not to share dishes or utensils, and if you can open a window to improve air circulation in shared rooms, do. If you can get a surgical mask, wear one to help reduce the spread of your germs if you are going to be around other people (again, you only need a mask if you are sick). And wash your hands a lot: before or after touching common surfaces, and especially before and after preparing food and going to the bathroom.
After a week, if you’ve been fever-free (without medicine) for at least 72 hours and your other symptoms have improved, you can leave home if you must.
But until then, as best you can, stay in. “I realize everyone can’t not go to work,” says Corey. “But if staying home is an option, I would try not to go to work.”