Here’s how to proceed safely
It’s not easy to get yourself tested for Covid-19 right now, but if you’ve done so and received a positive result — whether you got tested as part of a surveillance program, because you were a contact of someone who tested positive, or because you were feeling sick — know that most people who contract Covid-19 have a pretty mild case, ranging from no symptoms at all to flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, congestion, and stomach upset. Symptoms “run the gamut,” says Tina Tan, MD, an infectious disease and pediatrics doctor based in Chicago, and most people have an 80% to 90% chance of having relatively minor symptoms. So do your best to remain calm. Here’s doctor-approved advice for what to do next.
Put on a mask
A surgical mask, if you can find one, is enough to prevent you from spreading infection — you don’t need an N95 or a full-on hood with an oxygen tank. If you don’t have a surgical mask, the next best thing is to improvise with a scarf or a bandana over your nose and mouth, says Tan. However, fabrics don’t protect other people nearly as well as masks made for that purpose, so don’t be overconfident in these improvised solutions.
The goal of face protection is to protect others around you from inhaling droplets you give off when you cough or sneeze. Most of this type of transmission will happen within 10 feet of you, so you’ll want to mask up around roommates and family members if you must be around them.
If your test results come back positive and your symptoms are mild enough that it is safe for you to be at home — that is, you are not short of breath or otherwise severely ill — you should isolate yourself at home for 14 days after a positive test, says Tan. If you have or can get a room to yourself, stay there as much as possible, and open a window if the weather allows to help ventilate the space.
In any shared environment, cover your coughs and sneezes and wash or sanitize your hands often (but especially when they’re dirty, before and after meal preparation, and after blowing your nose or using the bathroom). It’s almost impossible to seal yourself off completely from people you live with, but do your best, and try not to worry about the things that are out of your control.
Clean shared spaces (and cuddle buddies)
Living with other people usually means sharing kitchens and bathrooms. If you can get a bathroom to yourself to use while you’re sick, do it. But if not, and if you also share a kitchen with other people, wipe down surfaces in these spaces at least once a day with a bleach wipe or a household disinfectant on a rag or washcloth. (If you use a rag or washcloth, place it into a laundry bin immediately after using so others don’t touch it.) The virus can live on surfaces for several days, so give special and more frequent attention to high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, refrigerator handles, microwave or other push buttons, and faucets. Select a dedicated dish or hand towel that only you use, and keep it on an out-of-the-way hook or in your room.
Animals are often a source of comfort, but in many households, they can function as adorable, mobile high-touch surfaces. “Treat it like a fomite,” says Tan: Avoid contact with your pet, and if you have contact despite your efforts, clean off the pet afterward with a pet wipe, a baby wipe labeled safe for pet use, or a washcloth soaked in a little pet shampoo and water before they snuggle anyone else.
If you live alone, or everyone in your house is sick, it’s a good idea to have a buddy plan in case you get so sick that you need medical attention.
Use medications judiciously
The symptoms and severity of Covid-19 infection vary among people depending on age, other medical conditions, smoking history, and other poorly understood factors. However, most people who get infected experience cold or flu-like symptoms. These include several days of fever and cough (either productive or dry), with or without chest or nasal congestion, upset stomach, sore throat, or headache. Unless you have a medication allergy or are taking a medication that can interact with other medications, it’s probably safe to use ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat fever and discomfort, NyQuil to help with nighttime symptoms, and pseudoephedrine for congestion. Other cough and cold medications don’t do very much for everyday coughs and colds, so they probably won’t help much with a Covid-19 infection, either.
If you have allergies or asthma, you might be prescribed medications that you use seasonally or only when you have chest tightness or when you exercise. Follow your usual plan for taking these medications, and don’t stop them unless you discuss it first with your health care provider.
In the hospital, people are often prescribed incentive spirometry, a practice of taking deep breaths to keep lungs healthy during periods of low mobility. (A home adaptation of the procedure would involve taking 10 to 15 deep breaths an hour while awake, holding each inhale for 3 to 5 seconds, then exhaling slowly.) Although there are no data to suggest this will reduce the risk of developing more severe infection, says Tan, it can’t hurt.
As for the swirl of advice recommending salt-water gargles and other strategies, “All of those homeopathic recommendations are just to make somebody more comfortable,” says Tan, and “have nothing to do with making the virus go away any faster.”
Also, if you’re a smoker or a vaper, now is a good time to quit — if not forever, then at least until you’re better. Smoking is associated with more severe lung infections, and vaping can cause lung injury that may increase the risk of those infections; quitting decreases the risk of developing pneumonia.
Seek help if you get sicker
People with mild illness generally start feeling better after a few days, Tan says. But some people remain ill for more than a week and occasionally worsen after an initial improvement in symptoms. This “double-peak” symptom pattern can include worsened cough, a newly productive cough, higher fevers, increased chest pain or tightness, or other symptoms.
Several things may be happening in this situation: It may simply be taking the body time to fight off the virus; a new bacterial infection may be appearing in parts of the body weakened by the virus (especially the lungs); or the viral infection itself may be causing changes to the heart or lungs that are causing persistent or worsening symptoms.
If you get worse instead of better, you might need more evaluation and treatment. For symptoms like fever and worsened cough, call your doctor — but if you develop danger signs like shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, confusion, or blue lips, you need to seek emergency room care. Call ahead to an emergency room or urgent care center before showing up so the staff there are prepared to protect themselves and other patients when you arrive. And if you call 911, let them know you have Covid-19 when you call.
Get to know your neighbors (electronically, probably)
If you live alone, or everyone in your house is sick, it’s a good idea to have a buddy plan in case you get so sick that you need medical attention. Get to know a few neighbors or reach out to some friends nearby, and make a plan with them to check in daily (via text or phone call or from at least six feet away) — or more often, if you like. Choose the health care facility where you’d go if you were to get sicker, and store its phone number somewhere easy to find. Think about how you’ll get there and share your plans with your buddy. Because the CDC recommends avoiding public transit including ride-shares and taxis, taking a private or livery car is best (which likely transports fewer customers per day), but if you must, call 911. Social networks can also help you get food and medicine when you’re stuck at home, so don’t be afraid to reach out to people.
“I would hope all of us are human,” says Tan, and “as part of being a human person, that you could ask somebody to help you. And if you were really in trouble, people would do it.”