The height of the novel coronavirus pandemic has arrived this winter — and unfortunately, data seems to project that things will only get worse. According to information curated by monitors at Johns Hopkins University, the United States reported more cases of COVID-19 in the first week of 2021 than at any other point in 2020, and a record number of hospitalizations have occurred after the holiday season, per analysis by The Atlantic. The likelihood of you or someone you love becoming infected (even following precautionary measures) may be higher than ever, depending on where you live.
There is a wide array of symptoms associated with COVID-19, and the severity of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person, even among those considered high-risk for complications. For some, symptoms will become too severe for you to remain at home, and you will need to seek immediate care from health providers in an emergency room, hospital, or clinic to prevent serious risk to your long-term health and life. Most people affected by the disease will self-isolate, however, and push past a range of mild to moderate symptoms that can be treated while recovering at home.
If you test positive for COVID-19, your very first course of action should be to contact your primary healthcare provider for help. Even if you don't require immediate aid in an emergency room, you may have pre-existing health conditions that render some of the advice and instructions from leading health agencies (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) unadvisable for your wellbeing. Heed your doctor's advice first before considering other ways to help yourself get through COVID-19 symptoms.
With the help of a pair of leading infectious disease doctors, Good Housekeeping reviews ways in which you can ease a myriad of COVID-19 symptoms at home. Below, we recap the right ways to help your body overcome an initial infection, and the best tools available to help.
This guide generalizes care recommendations prescribed by health officials for those impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis. It is not intended to replace or substitute medical or treatment advice from a licensed healthcare professional. Dial 911 if you are experiencing life-threatening symptoms, and seek medical advice from a healthcare provider after a COVID-19 diagnosis. The views reflected in this article are educational in nature and are shared to supplement individual treatment plans; you can find more recommendations from the CDC, World Health Organization, and your local public health department.
Which medications are best for COVID-19?
Everyone's COVID-19 treatment recommendations will be different, and since this is a relatively new disease, there isn't a single drug that can speed up your recovery. Theodore Bailey, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, says that a doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug or anti-inflammatory medications after you've been diagnosed, but over-the-counter medications are only intended to "make the process of being sick more comfortable."
Certain categories of drugs at your pharmacy or sold online can help reduce the severity of some of the most common COVID-19 symptoms. If you want to be prepared just in case, keep your cabinet stocked with the following:
Pain reducers: Also known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), these include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (so brands like Advil, Motrin, Aleve, and Anaprox). They work to reduce inflammation and bodily aches, even sore throat, and they may also have an effect on your fever as well.
Fever reducers: Primarily acetaminophen, in addition to other antipyretics, which can help manage your body's fever if you're continually breaking out in sweats or suffering chills. If you have high blood pressure, liver disease, or other pre-existing conditions, acetaminophen may be a safer choice compared to NSAIDs.
Cough medicine, suppressants: Dr. Bailey explains that persistent dry cough is a COVID-19 symptom that can cause pain, and cough medicine (particularly those that suppress coughing fits) can help you be more comfortable in recovery.
Vitamin C and zinc: Supplements are often used to boost one's immunity before falling ill, but they're not shown to actively impact COVID-19 progression in any way, Dr. Bailey clarifies. Antioxidants are generally safe as they're easy on kidneys and have been used historically in the flu and cold season — you can safely shop and take vitamin C and zinc supplements to aid your body's immune response to the disease. Herbal supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and aren't associated with COVID-19 treatments in most capacities by infectious disease doctors.
Which medication should I avoid if I have COVID-19?
Nausea and diarrhea, as well as congested airways, can be two hallmark COVID-19 symptoms for many. But you don't want to immediately treat those issues with over-the-counter products without asking a doctor first.
Your digestive tract is likely in the process of eliminating bacteria, and you don't want to stop it from doing so, explains Joshua K. Schaffzin, MD, PhD, the director of Infection Control and Prevention at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Anything containing the anti-diarrheal loperamide can prevent shorter-lived symptoms from running their course, and there are other ways to help yourself feel more comfortable. "Slowing down your gut and not clearing out an infection or inflammation isn't helpful… the key is staying hydrated and just letting it take its course, for most," Dr. Schaffzin says.
And certain decongestants — and inhalers, which should only be used by those with asthma — may hinder your health rather than provide instant relief. Anything containing phenylephrine, which is the active ingredient in many popular over-the-counter nasal decongestants, may be particularly harmful to those with cardiovascular issues. "What [these drugs] do is they cause small blood vessels in the nose to close up so that you don't get as much blood flow, and you just don't get as much fluid coming out," Dr. Schaffzin adds. "For people with high blood pressure, that can really be an issue, because it will close up vessels elsewhere as well."
What food should I avoid if I have COVID-19?
Your diet should be one of the first things you optimize after learning that you've been diagnosed with COVID-19. Reduced appetite has been cited as a common side effect for most, but pushing yourself to reach for supercharged snacks or even increased liquids can help your body respond better to other symptoms, Dr. Bailey stresses. "You should be doing your best to maintain a well-balanced diet, a normal caloric intake, and definitely maintain good hydration," he adds. You'll want to prioritize unprocessed foods and items high in minerals and antioxidants to replenish your body's supply; double down on fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains like starchy brown rice or wheat, and lean meats when possible.
It's equally important to make yourself drink more liquids to keep yourself hydrated: "Turn to whatever balanced drink you prefer, whether it be water or a sports drink, as long as it's not packed with sugar or unhealthy additives," Dr. Bailey clarifies. If you prefer a beverage like Gatorade or a hot cup of your favorite tea, go for it — but plain water is important in keeping hydrated during your sickness.
It's easier to define the things you shouldn't be reaching for while you're in recovery. Stay clear from these foods if you can, as each can hamper your body's ability to fight symptoms:
Overly salty foods, including processed snacks or meats like bacon.
Sugary foods, especially high sources of added sugar, like cookies and cakes.
Soft drinks and sugary fruit drinks.
Eating a balanced diet while in recovery may help your body feel more energized, Dr. Bailey explains. It's also important to get up a move, despite your fatigue, Dr. Bailey add:"Possibly take a walk outside each day if you can safely, as that's going to help you maintain your strength," he says.
Which tools can help me ease COVID-19 symptoms?
There are a few gadgets that can help alleviate your symptoms and keep you in the loop on how your body is progressing.
Humidifier: Especially in the winter season, if you're confined to one room in a household, it's important to ensure that the air supply is moist enough to not irritate your lungs, nose, and throat. Experts at the Mayo Clinic recommend that indoor humidity should hover between 30 and 50% to keep your respiratory system comfortable. "Be sure to clean the humidifier thoroughly between each tank refill if possible, and to keep it in one area of the house if you're living in a shared space," Dr. Schaffzin recommends. If your space isn't well ventilated with clean, dust-free air, having access to an air purifier may help ease the strain on your respiratory system, too.
Extra clean laundry: Many people experience high fevers and may sweat through their linens, blankets, and clothes easily. If you've been diagnosed, making sure you have ample clothing and linens on hand to stay warm and dry can save you from being stuck with sweaty bed sheets or fouled clothes.
Thermometer or thermal temperature scanner: These can help you know when you need to use certain medications, but more importantly, it can provide critical data for doctors who are monitoring your situation outside of the home. "Knowing a documented fever helps us track when it comes, when it goes, when it fluctuates — it really helps us manage illness, and step in if we should need to," Dr. Schaffzin adds.
Pulse oximeter: If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, having access to a pulse oximeter — which uses light to scan blood running through your finger, for example, to read oxygen saturation levels — can be key to saving yourself from being rushed into a hospital. It provides a key metric for doctors, who may instruct you to seek treatment immediately if the reading is consecutively worrisome. "There has been a disconnect between how sick people feel, and actually how low their oxygen is," Dr. Bailey says. "They may be sick, but they don't feel particularly short of breath, and yet their disease is actually worsening, and they're dealing with very low levels of oxygen in the body."
What should I do if my child is dealing with COVID-19 symptoms?
Family members should take extreme caution when caring for someone who has become sick with COVID-19 in their home due to the highly contagious nature of the disease. The CDC has published a full guide to all of the precautions you must take when looking after sick children, which includes similar advice for adults; sequestering them in a separate room and facility, wearing masks at all times, and plenty of disinfection and cleaning, among other tactics.
Specializing in pediatric care, Dr. Schaffzin says parents or caregivers will often know their child best, and can immediately tell when symptoms take a turn for the worse. Parents of kids with preexisting conditions should have plans in place for if COVID-19 hits them, but parents should always call physicians or healthcare providers on the spot if symptoms become too difficult to work through. Primarily, though, the Cincinnati Children's Hospital expert says that some of the most challenging symptoms may come weeks or months after an initial COVID-19 diagnosis.
"While COVID infections do not appear to cause as severe disease in kids as it does adults, kids are at greater risk for post-infectious and inflammatory conditions. Your child's immune system can go into overdrive long after initial infection," Dr. Schaffzin explains, referencing pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which prompts inflammation in the body for long periods of time. "And so what you're watching for first and foremost is fever… and watch for that carefully, because it's important to catch it early before a child lands in the hospital."
The syndrome often manifests in rashes, across the body and in hands and feet, or in chronic abdominal pain and aches, in addition to other symptoms.
When should I go to the hospital if I have COVID-19?
Despite your best efforts, you may be directed by your doctor to head to the hospital if you are getting sicker, even after the initial diagnosis has passed. If any of the following occurs while you're at home, whether you've spoken to your doctor or not, be sure to head to the emergency room:
Unable to breathe normally: If you're short on breath, try shifting positions, or lay face down on your bed in an attempt to stabilize your oxygen levels (what doctors call the 'prone' position). If the issue persists, especially with any of the other warnings signs on this list, call 911.
Chest pain: One of the most serious side effects of a COVID-19 infection is that blood clots can form, and sustained chest pain may indicate that a clot is causing a blockage or other serious danger in your arteries. Imaging in an emergency room could determine if your pain is due to clots anywhere in your abdomen.
Decreased consciousness: If you are feeling confused or delirious, unable to focus but for short periods of time, or unable to stay awake, this may be caused by low oxygen levels or by cardiovascular issues, which should be assessed immediately.
Few or nonexistent bathroom trips: If you're not making as much urine as you normally do, or any at all, it's a sign that you've become seriously dehydrated, Dr. Bailey explains. This may lead to mild COVID-19 symptoms becoming deadly if left unchecked.
Blue lips or face: Known as cyanosis, this condition indicates that your blood doesn't have enough oxygen for your body. It's a hallmark sign of a serious COVID-19 infection, especially when seen alongside any other condition on this list.
If you're in a shared home, living with loved ones or family, it feels natural to ask them for help in caring for you if symptoms continue to worsen. But Dr. Bailey explains that those who are experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms and don't head for the hospital are putting their loved ones in extreme danger. "If there's a point where you're really not able to take care of yourself, it's going to be really dangerous for non-professional household members to try and take care of you," he explains. "The level of protection and skill is not going to be comparable to trained nurses and doctors. And so it would lead to two or more cases in the same household instead of one. We have to check our instincts here — if you need serious help, it needs to come from the hospital, not from family members."
As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. We'll update this article with new guidance as it becomes available.
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