March 26, 2020 - 5 p.m. EST
First thing’s first: If you are sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) — or any other illness for that matter — and you have severe, concerning, or worsening symptoms, do not hesitate to seek out medical attention immediately. However, many people are managing COVID-19 at home.
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During the current pandemic, there’s been a lot in the news about the need to “flatten the curve” and do everything we can to make sure we don’t overwhelm the healthcare system. On one hand, this is a great — and very necessary — strategy. Reducing the burden on the healthcare system is one way to make sure people who truly need care are able to get it when they need it. That’s why many hospitals are taking steps to free up resources, such as canceling elective surgeries. But if you do think you are too sick to take care of yourself at home, don’t. The reason everybody else is working to “flatten the curve” is to leave the healthcare system available for people who are sick — and that may include you.
If you are unsure about the severity of your symptoms and don’t know if you should be evaluated in person or not, there are numerous telehealth companies that offer online assessments for COVID-19. Check with your regular doctor to see if they’re offering the same. By interacting with a licensed healthcare professional online, you can better understand your risk of disease, the level of care that is most appropriate for you, and tips for how to take care of yourself that are specific to the symptoms you are experiencing. The good news is that, according to a Chinese study published in The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), ~80% of individuals with the novel coronavirus experience a mild form of the disease.
If, after all of this, you decide it is best to stay home, there are several things you can do to care for yourself. If you have ever stayed home with a cold or the flu before, a lot of this may sound familiar. Many of the things you can do for COVID-19 overlap with what you can do for the common cold and for influenza, since many of the symptoms may overlap.
Is There Any Way to Shorten the Disease?
At this time, it is unclear if there is anything you can do to actually shorten the duration of your illness. There is currently no known cure or specific treatment for COVID-19 (although some medications are under investigation). Antibiotics cannot treat COVID-19 because the disease is caused by a virus, and antibiotics are only effective at treating infections caused by bacteria.
Zinc supplements, if taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms, can shorten the length of the common cold. There is some evidence that vitamin C can help treat the common cold but no data exists for this new coronavirus. And there is even very limited lab research that suggests chicken soup could have anti-inflammatory effects. You may decide these are all worth trying if you have COVID-19, but there is no guarantee that any of them will actually have a beneficial effect.
If I Can’t Shorten the Disease, What Can I Do?
What you can focus on, is controlling your symptoms and keeping yourself comfortable. This could be as simple as staying in bed, getting lots of rest, and eating healthy food.
If you have body aches or a fever, you may want to take a fever reducer/pain reliever, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen). There is some uncertainty about whether or not non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) make COVID-19 worse. Common NSAIDs include but are not limited to Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen), and aspirin. According to the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization, you should still use these medications to treat your symptoms.
If you are congested or have a cough, there are several over-the-counter medications you can try. Sudafed, DayQuil, NyQuil, Robitussin, and Mucinex are just a few of the brands that contain different active ingredients. When you are choosing what to take, be sure to read the labels carefully. If you have chest congestion and want to cough out the phlegm, a cough expectorant may be best for you. Alternatively, if you are trying to sleep through the night and don’t want to be bothered by coughing, a cough suppressant may be best. Try to match up your most bothersome symptoms with the medication descriptions on the box. Also, make sure you are not “doubling up” on any active ingredients. For example, DayQuil already has acetaminophen in it, so you would not want to pair it with Tylenol.
What About Other People in My Home?
Part of caring for yourself at home may involve preventing the spread of disease to others. This can seem pretty difficult, especially if you live with other people or have a caretaker. However, some simple steps to take include:
· Stay in a separate room (if possible)
· Ensure good airflow in shared spaces
· Cough/sneeze into the elbow
· Practice good hand hygiene (and good overall hygiene)
· Avoid sharing items (such as utensils)
· Frequently disinfect common surfaces
· Do not have any visitors
· Do not leave the home unless absolutely necessary
· Have the healthy individuals take care of any pets. While there is currently no evidence that pets can contract COVID-19, they could carry virus particles on their bodies if they are going between sick and non-sick individuals
A more complete list of recommendations can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s website.
Is There Anything Else I Should Think About?
There are two final — but very important — things to keep in mind.
First, make sure you are closely monitoring your symptoms. If anything changes or if your symptoms are getting worse, don’t force yourself to stay home. Seek medical attention immediately.
Second, don’t assume that when you start feeling better, it is safe for you to be around others right away. There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. We don’t yet know if you can spread the virus after your symptoms clear up. And we don’t yet know if it’s possible to get COVID-19 more than once.
Researchers are currently trying to find answers to these questions. But until we have a better handle on this pandemic, the best thing you can do may be to act as if you are still infectious. Although it may seem hard, continue to follow the public health recommendations that are in place where you are living, continue to wash your hands regularly, and continue to practice social distancing.
Disclosure: Dr. Bohl works for a company that offers an online COVID-19 assessment.