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COVID-19

School of Public Health Expert Insights

What to do if you have COVID-19

What To Do If You Have COVID-19

By Keri Althoff and Lindsay Smith Rogers | February 12, 2021


This article is part two of a series. Read part one here: Before COVID Comes Home: What You Can Do Now in Case Someone in Your Household Becomes Ill

Over 24 million Americans have or have had COVID-19.

Though vaccines are slowly rolling out and community transmission is declining after a post-holiday peak, it’s expected that many more will be diagnosed with COVID-19 before the pandemic is brought to heel.

If you have a confirmed COVID diagnosis via a positive test, you may feel overwhelmed or confused about what to do next. While guidance and resources may differ across jurisdictions, there are a few things you can do immediately to protect both yourself and those around you.

1. Isolate immediately.

If you have been exposed to COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms, or have received a positive diagnosis, make a plan to isolate yourself. 

If you are living in a household with other people who do NOT have COVID-19—and especially if any household members are at high risk of serious disease—you should isolate yourself in a single room or separate area of the house, preferably with access to a bathroom that only you will use. If possible, open the windows and/or doors in the “sick area” and find ways to improve ventilation

If you must share space with others in your household, find ways to improve ventilation in the common spaces, wear a mask, and try to stay 6 feet away from other household members. Household members should also be masked when in the common space. If someone is helping to care for you, they should be masked (and gloved if touching body fluids) when they are caring for you. You can learn more about COVID-19 infection control at home here

If multiple members of your household have symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19, it’s OK to isolate together—you will not make each other sicker by doing so.

2. Answer your phone.

A contact tracer may attempt to reach you once you test positive. Contact tracers are a good source of information and may be able to connect you to resources that can assist you while you’re in isolation. Additionally, they may have a number for you to call if your symptoms worsen. They will ask you for information about your recent contacts, but they are also there to support you during your isolation and illness.

3. Call your doctor or health care provider if you have one.

It’s a good idea to let your doctor or health care provider know you have received a positive COVID-19 test. They should be able to answer any questions you have, such as:

  • Is it OK to take ibuprofen or aspirin for symptoms?
  • What should I do if my symptoms become worse or last longer than 10 days?
  • Is there anything in my medical history that might put me at risk for complications? If so, what should I be aware of/looking out for?

4. Make a plan for at least 10 days of isolation and quarantine.

Once you’ve isolated yourself from other COVID-19–negative household members, you’ll need to make a plan to shelter in place for a minimum of 10 days from the first day of symptoms (this could be longer if your symptoms have not improved). 

The goal is to care for yourself without exposing others to COVID-19. This may mean calling your employer to request sick leave or remote work if you’re feeling well enough and are able to do so, setting up grocery delivery, and asking for help with errands or chores like dog walking. You can learn more about when you can be around others again from the CDC. 

Those caring for you (or in close contact with you if you’re not able to isolate in a separate space) should quarantine. Quarantine for others begins *after* your isolation ends, or from the last day they had close contact with you. You can learn more about quarantine guidelines from the CDC.

5. Monitor your symptoms if you have them.

It’s important to take good care of yourself while in quarantine or isolation regardless of whether you have symptoms. Drinking plenty of fluids, eating well, exercising if possible, and maintaining social ties with friends and family through virtual means can all help your physical and mental well-being.

If you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—which may include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, muscle or body aches, and more—your health care provider may recommend taking over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce symptoms. But there are no approved at-home treatments for COVID-19, so if your symptoms remain mild, there’s nothing you can do to shorten the duration of illness. Make sure to get plenty of fluids and rest while waiting for the virus to run its course.

It is also possible that you will have no symptoms. Even if you are not symptomatic, it’s important to stay isolated for 10 days, as we know that people who are infected with no symptoms can spread the virus to others.

If you are at high risk for developing severe COVID-19 illness (including those who are 65 or older or have certain medical conditions, like diabetes), consider calling your doctor or local health department to ask where you might be able to access monoclonal antibody treatment. This is an infusion that can help prevent severe disease by giving your immune system a boost to specifically fight the virus that causes COVID-19. This treatment must be administered within 10 days of symptoms and is authorized for use in people over the age of 12.

6. Know how and when to seek help for severe or worsening symptoms. 

If at any time during your COVID-19 illness you have trouble breathing, chest pain, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face, you should call for medical assistance. Use the CDC’s self-checker tool to know when to seek immediate care.

If your symptoms last longer than 10 days, check in with your doctor or the local health department.

7. Know when you can end isolation—and commit to continuing COVID-19 safety guidelines.

According to the CDC, you can end isolation after:

  • 10 days since symptoms first appeared AND
  • 24 hours with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications AND
  • Other symptoms of COVID-19 are improving*

*Loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery. You do not need to continue to isolate or quarantine beyond 10 days if you are fever-free and other symptoms have resolved.

However, having recovered from COVID does not mean you are “immune.” Reinfection is possible, and it is not yet known if you can still transmit COVID to others. Mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, and avoiding indoor gatherings is still important after a COVID-19 infection or illness. 

Even if other people you know have recovered from COVID, it’s still not safe to gather together without these safety measures in place. 

8. Donate plasma and make a plan to get vaccinated!

Once you’ve recovered from COVID-19, you may be eligible to donate plasma to COVID-19 patients. There is currently a shortage of this lifesaving liquid, and one person can help up to three people by donating.

Visit https://covidplasmatrial.org/ for more information about how and where you may be able to donate.

Finally, even if you have recovered from COVID-19, you’ll still need to get vaccinated when doses are available to you. That’s because it’s not known how strong or long-lasting immunity is after having COVID—but we do know that immune protection from vaccination is up to 95% effective. If you receive monoclonal antibody therapy during your illness, you will need to wait 90 days to be vaccinated.

Keri Althoff, PhD ’08, MPH ’05, is an associate professor in Epidemiology with a joint appointment at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is the Provost’s Fellow for Research Communication at Johns Hopkins. 
Lindsay Smith Rogers is the producer of the Public Health On Call podcast and the associate director of content strategy for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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