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What to do if you think you have coronavirus

Kate Rockwood writer headshot By | March 25, 2020
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Hudson, APRN, NP-C

As COVID-19 continues to affect more people in the U.S., you may feel a little panic start to creep in at the first sign of a scratchy throat. And while it’s true that the number of coronavirus diagnoses are expected to grow rapidly, a study published by the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 80% of the cases in China are mild. That does, however, make it easier for COVID-19 to spread because people often don’t know they are sick. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to know what to do if you suspect you have coronavirus. 

What to do if you suspect you’re sick

If you think you may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, especially if you have coronavirus symptoms like a fever and cough, there are several steps you should take.

1. Isolate yourself. 

If your symptoms are mild, and until you can confirm if you have COVID-19 or not, stay home and separate yourself from family members and pets as much as possible. (Right now there’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to pets, but it’s not certain). This is especially important if you have had contact with someone who may have the virus.

2. Get medical help for more severe symptoms. 

If your symptoms are more serious, you have a very high fever, feel very weak, and are short of breath, you should get medical help—but don’t just show up at the hospital or your healthcare provider’s office. Call your healthcare provider and tell him or her that you have or suspect you have COVID-19. If your symptoms are so severe you need emergency care, call ahead so healthcare workers can prepare.

3. Wear a mask. 

If you need to leave your house to see a doctor, wear a mask to protect others. You might also want to wear a mask at home during times you’re in the same room with another family member.

4. Use good hygiene. 

To help avoid spreading coronavirus, don’t share personal items like plates or silverware at home and wipe down surfaces like door knobs, night stands, toilets and phones with cleaning wipes every day. Regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 

5. Get tested. 

Testing for COVID-19 now only requires a healthcare provider’s order. Your healthcare provider will work with your local health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to decide if you should be tested. Some of the reasons you may be tested include you have a fever and lower respiratory symptoms and have had contact with a confirmed patient; you have a fever and lower respiratory symptoms, require hospitalization, and have recently traveled to an area with a high number of cases; or you have a fever and lower respiratory symptoms, require hospitalization, and your illness hasn’t been explained by some other cause like the flu. 

FDA-approved tests given in public health facilities should be free, but depending on your insurance, you likely will have to pay for a healthcare provider’s visit or any time spent in a hospital or ER. “Our goal is early detection of new cases and to prevent further spread of the coronavirus,” CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, said in a press release.

6. Stay home until you are cleared. 

If you’re at home, stay in isolation until you either know you don’t have COVID-19 or until your doctor gives you the all clear. Mild cases of coronavirus last between two and three weeks whereas severe cases could last up to six weeks. 

There is currently no FDA-approved vaccine for coronavirus on the market (however there is one in the U.S. that is currently undergoing human trials, and others throughout the world that are being tested) and because it is a virus, antibiotics don’t work. In the meantime, getting enough rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking medication to alleviate symptoms are the best treatments for milder cases. However, keep in mind that due to emerging data from China and Italy, it is now recommended that ibuprofen, as well as other NSAIDs, should be avoided if you have symptoms of COVID-19, as these medications have been shown to cause worsening of the virus. If you need to symptomatically treat fever or body aches, do so with acetaminophen taking care to follow dosing directions and not exceed recommended maximum daily doses (if you have a low grade fever, it is recommended to let the fever run its course).