As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rises sharply in the U.S., hospitalizations and the death toll are expected to climb exponentially. And those experiencing only mild symptoms like a dry cough or sore throat (and in some cases no symptoms at all) are further fueling the spread of the highly infectious the novel virus SARS-CoV-2 that causes coronavirus disease. That’s because many don’t even know they have COVID-19, and they feel well enough to leave home.
Hoping to stem the rapid spread of the coronavirus, public health experts are now urging virtually everyone to practice social distancing, with adults and kids keeping at least 6 feet between themselves and others outside their household. As schools have shuttered and workplaces closed, many individuals and families are staying home.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone developing emergency signs associated with COVID-19 should get immediate medical attention. Signs to heed include:
— Shortness of break or difficulty breathing.
— Persistent chest pain or pressure.
— Becoming confused or unable to be aroused.
— Bluish lips or face.
“If symptoms are progressive or severe, for example, increasing shortness of breath, that person should go to the emergency room,” says Dr. Robert Salata, an infectious disease specialist and program director for University Hospitals Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health. “But if that’s not the case, first they should contact their primary care physician.”[Read: How Coronavirus Affects Older Adults.]
Testing for COVID-19
If you have symptoms that you believe may be the COVID-19, it’s important to call your health care provider.
“Generally, persons with coronavirus will experience cold-like symptoms, the most common of which are fever, cough and in more severe cases shortness of breath,” says Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, a professor of medicine and public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. However, other symptoms such as malaise, characterized by an overall feeling of not being well and being fatigued, may start before the cold-like symptoms, he points out. “It’s important to note that while the majority of people do experience a fever, some do not.”
To compound confusion, testing for the virus remains limited, frustrating patients and doctors alike. Still, it’s best to check with your doctor or other medical personnel to see if it’s possible to get tested for the coronavirus. But instead of simply showing up at your doctor’s office or an emergency room with mild symptoms, call ahead to determine the best way to be tested or assessed.
Offered as an alternative, some home testing kits claim to be able detect COVID-19. But clinicians emphasize there’s currently no home test for coronavirus that has been approved for use at home by the Food and Drug Administration. “I do not trust these tests and would advise against buying them,” Salata says.
“States are working to establish drive-thru testing, and that should be available soon,” Dr. Daniel J. Morgan, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Patients should call their health care provider to get information on where testing is available in their area. Testing is, unfortunately, still not available for outpatients in many areas of the country.”[SEE: Coronavirus Prevention Steps That Do or Do Not Work.]
Self-Care at Home
For some who have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, a higher degree of separation, or home isolation, is necessary to keep from transmitting the disease to other people. Isolation is advised when a person is stable enough to be at home — such as if an individual didn’t require hospitalization or has been discharged from the hospital.
While public health authorities are generally recommending against masks for healthy people — to keep up the supply for health care workers — sick individuals should wear masks. That protects others from virus-spreading respiratory droplets that go airborne when a person coughs or sneezes.
The greater degree of separation with home isolation also extends to a person having their own bedroom, and ideally, bathroom, in which to recover. “As much as possible, you should stay in a specific ‘sick room’ and away from other people in your home,” Morgan advises. “Use a separate bathroom, if one is available.”
That’s on top of taking all other measures, like staying at least 6 feet from others, taken when self-quarantining.
“People who are mildly ill with COVID-19 should be able to recover at home,” Morgan says. “Do not leave, except to get medical care. Do not visit public areas.”
If you need to be “seen” by a doctor, check if telemedicine is an option. “Be sure to get care if you feel worse or you think it is an emergency,” Morgan says. But where in-person patient visits are being limited to reduce COVID-19 spread, make sure to call your doctor in advance to determine what’s needed. And if you do need to see a health provider, avoid using public transportation or ride-sharing to get to an appointment, Morgan says.[READ: Coronavirus: What to Stock up on So You’re Prepared.]
Recovering at Home
There’s currently no FDA-approved vaccine or proven cure for COVID-19 — although efforts are ongoing to develop both. But if you were able to access COVID-19 testing through a health care provider, or have symptoms that you suspect to be coronavirus, you may still be able to get some symptom relief, like for fever, while you recover at home.
“We treat the COVID-19 symptoms the same as we would for a cold,” Carrasquillo says. These medications can include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for aches or fever.
Initially, the World Health Organization cautioned against people with COVID-19 taking anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, over concerns the drugs could worsen the effects of the infection. But it then retracted the statement, and other health experts and the European Medicines Agency have said there’s a lack of scientific evidence establishing this.
“I think more evidence is needed before we tell people to stop using ibuprofen,” Morgan says. “The theory that these pain medications could be worsening or prolonging infections (is) based on very limited evidence,” he contends. Experts advise instead checking with your doctor regarding which pain reliever is right for you to use.
“Many people ask me about taking antibiotics like ampicillin and ciprofloxacin. These antibiotics do not help with viruses and should not be taken for COVID-19,” Carrasquillo also notes.
“There are some studies just beginning that will be testing some medications used against malaria to see if they work again COVID-19,” he adds. “However, right now we do not have any good data to recommend such treatments.”
In the absence of more robust data, President Donald Trump recently tweeted that hydroxychloroquine, which is used to treat malaria and the autoimmune disease lupus, could in combination with another anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, be “game changers” in the fight against COVID-19. Although experts say more study is needed to determine if the drugs could effectively treat the coronavirus, the unproven claim has led some to stockpile hydroxychloroquine, making it harder for people with lupus to access the drug.
“Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Warm tea with honey and broth soups (yes, chicken soup!) can also be soothing,” Morgan says. The most important thing is to stay hydrated, emphasizes Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality and safety officer at UW Health, which is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Heat packs might help for muscle aches, warm salt water gargle can help for an itchy or sore throat,” he adds. “Hot liquids or soups can help with any sinus congestion or loosen phlegm.”
Most important of all, doctors reiterate, is to recover at home if it’s safe to do so, and keep your distance from those in your household. That will provide comfort as you deal with symptoms, while preventing the spread of COVID-19 to others.