Your spouse develops a dry cough and says they feel feverish. Or your roommate starts feeling achy, exhausted and short of breath after finding out a coworker tested positive for COVID-19.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge across the country, these are situations more and more people may find themselves in.
What should you do if someone in your household starts to show COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive for the disease? Here’s some guidance for keeping your sick family member as comfortable as possible while limiting the chance that the virus will spread easily in your household.
Why the person who’s sick should self-isolate
The coronavirus spreads mainly when people who are infected come in close contact with others. A home where people spend many hours a day together is a prime spot for this to happen.
“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of infectivity in homes, where someone who’s sick infects other people they live with,” says James Merlino, MD, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer.
A recent study supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that it’s common for the coronavirus to spread among people in a household – often early after one person starts feeling sick.
But it’s not inevitable, and there are steps you can take to prevent it from happening. Experts agree that it’s best for someone who’s sick with COVID-19 symptoms or who tests positive for the disease to isolate themselves as soon as possible.
Ideally, this means they should stay in a separate bedroom, and preferably use a separate bathroom, too.
However, if you live in close quarters and aren’t able to do this, create as much air circulation as possible in your home by opening windows, if it’s warm enough outside to do so. “If you have to be in close proximity to the person who is sick, you can all wear masks,” Dr. Merlino says. “But trying to keep people separated as much as possible is the best thing you can do.”
According to the CDC, the person who’s sick should self-isolate until it’s been 10 days since their symptoms started and they’ve been free of a fever for at least 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medication.
If you can’t avoid close contact with the person in your home who is sick, the CDC recommends that you also stay home while they isolate and for 14 days afterward. This will ensure that you don’t risk spreading COVID-19 to others outside of your home. Watch for a fever, cough, shortness of breath or other COVID-19 symptoms.
Caring for someone who has COVID-19
Often, people who get sick with COVID-19 can recover safely at home. They’ll need plenty of rest and likely some help from others so that they can stay isolated. (If you’re considered high-risk for getting very sick with COVID-19, you should avoid being the caretaker for the person if you can.)
The first step is to make sure whoever is sick is in contact with a healthcare provider. They may be advised to get tested for COVID-19, or to just stay home and monitor symptoms.
If they test positive or are assumed to have COVID-19, here’s what you can do to help them recover at home:
- Check on them often, and watch for warning signs: Things can change quickly with COVID-19. Check on them often while following the safety practices outlined in the next section below. If they start to show signs of trouble breathing, persistent chest pain, new confusion, trouble waking or staying awake, or bluish lips or face, help them get emergency medical care.
- Make sure they have medications and supplies: Having a thermometer on hand can help the person who is sick monitor their fever. A health care provider might also recommend over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers, cough suppressants and fever reducers to help keep them comfortable.
- Help take care of their basic needs: It’s important for the person who is sick to drink lots of fluids and rest. If you’re able to, help with getting groceries delivered, preparing meals, caring for pets and taking care of other household duties.
- Trace and inform others they’ve been in close contact with: Consider who else may have come in contact with the person who is sick. Let those people know so that they can quarantine for 14 days, as recommended by the CDC.
- Offer emotional support: Being physically isolated can be lonely and boring. “Supporting people’s emotional state is really important,” Dr. Merlino says. Set up a video chat with the rest of the family from another area of the home, or slide hand-written notes under the door to the person’s room each day.
Protect yourself and others in your household
Caring for your family member or housemate who has COVID-19 while also protecting yourself will require some care and caution. Experts recommend that you:
- Avoid close contact with the person who’s sick, if you can.
- If you can’t avoid close contact with them, wear a mask. They should also wear a mask when they’re around others at home to block the droplets that spread the virus from going into the air.
- Continue to follow everyday coronavirus precautions. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces every day. This includes doorknobs, faucets and light switches. Check the Environmental Protection Agency’s list to make sure that your household disinfectant is effective against the coronavirus.
- Don’t share personal household items with the person who is sick. Wash all of their cups, dishes and eating utensils with dish soap and hot water (or in the dishwasher). The CDC says it’s fine to wash their laundry along with yours but recommends that you wear disposable gloves and use warm water.
- Avoid visitors to your home – especially anyone who’s at high risk for COVID-19 complications.
“COVID-19 often gets in through the back door – it spreads when someone loosens up on precautions or when a family member isn’t careful,” Dr. Merlino says. “So we have to be very vigilant with these precautions.”