Myers wanted to know how she could take care of herself. She was curious if an over-the-counter cold medicine (OTC), would be helpful. She wanted to find out if prescription antivirals were possible because she has type 1 diabetes. This is an additional risk factor for severe COVID. As test positivity rates rise and case numbers increase, so do the number of people who have such questions. As they attempt to overcome a condition that can be mild but not severe, thousands are left at home. This has resulted in about one million Americans being hospitalized.
To answer your questions about COVID self-care and when to seek medical attention, Scientific American contacted doctors across the country who treat COVID patients. To gather the best advice for those who suspect or know they have the disease, we also looked at recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as a number of public health experts.
Note Your Symptoms
All current cases in the U.S. have been caused by Omicron, particularly the BA lineage. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of California Los Angeles, says that Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness than Delta. Omicron can also cause symptoms much quicker than Delta, usually two to three days rather than four to five.
The range of symptoms that could be experienced is vast, but the focus is on the upper respiratory system. Physicians are reporting fewer symptoms of chest or lung inflammation, sore throats, and congestion due to BA.2 being found in the airways above and below the lungs. Common symptoms include fever, headaches, shortness or breathlessness, and achiness.
Take a Test
Between 48 and 72 hours after potential COVID exposure or at the first sign of any symptoms, people should take either a rapid antigen or PCR test. Amesh Adalja is a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There should be very low threshold for testing yourself for COVID or any other condition.” While COVID may look like an allergy, cold, or influenza, the treatment for each is different.
PCR test are more sensitive, but they can be harder to obtain. Experts recommend that you take a quick antigen test at your home, which is usually sufficient. People should wait for two days if the first test comes back negative. In the meantime, they should behave cautiously and then take another one like Myers. The viral load will rise if it is COVID. “Nothing is perfect in life, and the rapid antigen test are not perfect either,” Lucy McBride, a Washington, D.C.-based primary care physician, says. (Lists of free testing locations can be found on the Test To Treat locator Web page provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. )
If someone tests positive for HIV, it’s a good idea to contact a primary physician. Doctors can offer advice and up-to-date medical histories. The result will be reported to the public health authorities for inclusion in case counts. People should keep track of the date symptoms started and the date of the positive test.
Most people who have COVID will do well at home. McBride states that people who have COVID will do well if they are vaccinated, boosted, and otherwise healthy. Although they cannot treat COVID directly, over-the-counter medication can be used to manage the symptoms. Doctors recommend acetaminophen (Tylenol), or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to reduce fevers and ease achiness. Early in the pandemic, there were reports that ibuprofen made COVID worse, but those have not been substantiated. NSAIDs should not be used for longer periods of time because they can cause more side effects than acetaminophen and are not safe for everyone. Before taking NSAIDs, it is a good idea to consult your doctor if you are on any other medications. To relieve congestion and ease cough, antihistamines such as DayQuil or cold medication can be used.
All over-the-counter medicines should be taken only as directed (some cold medications already contain acetaminophen). McBride states that the dose and frequency of over-the-counter medications will depend on the patient’s health and should be discussed with their doctor.
TLC can be as important as any over-the-counter medication. It is important to get enough sleep and drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration. This will help reduce the severity of your cough. Hot tea with honey and hot water are classic remedies that can relieve sore throats and reduce cough.
Time to Isolate
Even if someone feels mildly ill they should remain isolated for at least five consecutive days. This means that you should eat and sleep alone, and avoid sharing your bathroom. Experts recommend that everyone in the household use masks and open windows if they are not possible to achieve this level of isolation. N95 and KN95 masks are most protective, and it is important that they fit well. Brewer suggests that you minimize the time spent together and maximize [physical] distance. “Transmission is a function of time, proximity, viral load and mitigating factors.”