What To Do If You Feel Sick Right Now — Advice From KU Med's Infectious Disease Expert
Normally, most people wouldn’t give much thought to a minor cough or slight fever in March. But March 2020 hasn’t been like other years.
In the midst of a global pandemic, signs of illness can seem alarming, but Dr. Dana Hawkinson, infectious disease specialist at the University of Kansas Health Systems, says a little knowledge and common sense can help, whatever the illness might turn out to be.
If a cough or fever have you worried, here’s what you need to know.
1. Don’t panic.
Only about 4% of the COVID-19 tests performed in Kansas have turned out to be positive. The flu is still widespread in both states. Hawkinson says there are other colds and respiratory illness circulating in our areas.
2. Act as if it is COVID-19.
Because of the critical need to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Hawkinson says we should act in an abundance of caution and be vigilant about any illness. Call your doctor to tell him or her you are sick and take extra measures to avoid contact with friends and family. "Probably try to self-quarantine or self-isolate or really try to reduce the chance that other people in your household or other people you know may get the disease, if it truly is COVID-19 infection," Hawkinson says.
3. Recover at home.
If you have COVID-19, it will likely be mild enough for you to rest and recover at home. About 80% of known cases are mild to moderate (and many experts believe that there may be many more unknown cases that are very mild or asymptomatic). Doctors’ offices and hospitals are busy right now, and there’s not much they could do to treat mild COVID-19 anyway, so might as well stay home and watch Netflix. “You’ll probably feel down for three, five, seven days, but then recover,” Hawkinson says.
4. Don’t expect to get a COVID-19 test, unless you met a very narrow criteria.
The availability of testing is limited in Kansas and Missouri, as in the rest of the U.S., because of lack of testing materials. As a result, people have generally only been able to get tested if they have been to an area with widespread cases or been in close contact with an identified patient. Testing guidelines have been loosening up, but tests are still not widely available. Besides that, even if you tested positive, it wouldn’t affect your course of treatment.
5. Think like a COVID patient, but act like a flu patient.
There is currently no way to cure COVID-19, so the treatment is basically the same as what you’d do for the cold or flu. Rest. Drink plenty of water. Avoid other people. Take over-the-counter medication as need to treat symptoms like cough or fever. Doctors in France are advising patients to avoid ibuprofen. Dr. Hawkinson isn’t convinced this is needed, but acetaminophen can be taken instead to reduce pain or fever.
6. Watch your symptoms.
Hawkinson says that if symptoms worsen or don’t change after several days, contact your doctor. Getting over COVID-19 may take a week or longer, but it may require additional measures if this isn’t happening. People over 50 or who have chronic health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure may be at higher risk for developing more severe illness. “If you feel you are doing worse with increased trouble breathing, chest pains, anything like that that would normally allow you to seek medical attention, please do. Just call ahead before you do,” Hawkinson says.
7. Seek extra care if you have having shortness of breath or the illness is getting worse.
In this case you may be admitted to the hospital. Hospitals may provide additional oxygen or other measures that will allow you to recover more easily. “We’re not giving you anything specifically against the virus, we’re trying to support your body as it hopes to recover,” Hawkinson says.
8. Keep your distance after you're on the mend. The vast majority of patients recover from COVID-19 and return to normal health. After the symptoms go away, you may need to continue to avoid other people, because it’s not clear how long patient stay contagious, although some research suggests patients can’t get others sick long after they recover.
As with many virus, once you recover, your body will have developed an immunity that will protect you from other infection. Scientists aren’t sure how long this immunity last or how strong it is, but you are likely less susceptible to COVID-19 than you were before you had it.
Alex Smith is a health care reporter at KCUR. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.