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How to treat mild COVID-19 symptoms at home

By The Health News Team | January 5, 2023
Young woman taking medicine

We continue to hear about increasing cases of COVID-19 and the flu, with the possibility we’ll continue to see the number of hospitalizations rise due to severe illness. But what we don’t often hear is that most people with respiratory illnesses — including COVID-19 and flu — are taking care of themselves or being cared for by loved ones at home.

For people who experience symptoms of COVID-19 or flu — including fever, chills, headache, sore throat, congestion, body aches and fatigue — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a few general care tips:

  • Get tested as soon as possible after your symptoms start.

  • Stay home and isolate yourself.

  • Rest.

  • Stay hydrated.

  • Take over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to reduce fever or pain, and a decongestant — specifically pseudoephedrine.

  • Wash your hands often and regularly clean touched surfaces.

  • Avoid sharing personal household items.

  • Improve ventilation at home.

Antiviral treatments can also help

Certain high-risk groups should still consult their doctor to see if they would benefit from COVID-19 or flu treatment. Antiviral treatments for flu, which may be prescribed after a person receives a positive flu test result, are effective if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset. There are also prescription treatments for lab-proven COVID-19.

“The COVID-19-specific therapy currently available and recommended is Paxlovid, an oral antiviral medication, which is the first-line choice per the CDC,” says Dr. Robert Patel, a board-certified emergency medicine specialist with Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Monoclonal antibodies are no longer recommended because of increasing community resistance.”

Talk with your doctor to see if getting a prescription for these medications is right for you. According to the CDC, when treatment is started within two days of becoming sick, flu antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and decrease the time you are sick by about one day. For people at higher risk of serious flu complications, early treatment with an antiviral drug can help prevent severe illness and hospitalization.

Paxlovid can reduce COVID-19 symptoms and decrease the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death when taken within five days of first experiencing symptoms. There are three Paxlovid pills that you take at home, twice a day, for five days.

At-home treatment of respiratory illness symptoms

Because a cough is one of the top flu and COVID-19 symptoms, Merissa Corey, a pharmacy supervisor with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, says you should also consider using cough syrup with the ingredients guaifenesin to help break up mucus and dextromethorphan to suppress a dry cough. Lozenges can help soothe a sore throat.

There is also at-home equipment that might make you feel a bit more comfortable and help to monitor your condition. Corey recommends an accurate thermometer to keep track of any potential fevers, as well as a humidifier or vaporizer to soothe and control a cough.

Dr. Patel noted that the number of patients coming in for COVID-19 pneumonia and hypoxemia is much lower compared to the past two years and because of this, a pulse oximeter — an electronic device that measures the level of oxygen in the red blood cells, also known as oxygen saturation — is likely not necessary for the low-risk population. “However, if you feel short of breath or have chest pain, please call your doctor or come in for evaluation,” Dr. Patel says.

Other general care tips

In combination with medications and at-home medical equipment, Dr. Patel and Corey note there are additional ways to help relieve flu or COVID-19 symptoms at home and stay safe:

  • Maintain good nutrition. “You need some fuel to help your body fight the infection,” Dr. Patel says.

  • Keep moving. Corey suggests short walks around the house and deep breathing exercises. “Movement can help open up the lungs and make breathing easier,” she says.

  • Practice self-care. “Read a favorite book, make some phone calls to friends and stay positive,” says Corey.

  • Avoid Exposing Others. “High-risk individuals should still mask indoors and self-isolate,” added Dr. Patel. “The primary concern for lower-risk individuals is exposing a high-risk individual to flu or COVID-19 and the risk of long COVID, which we are still learning about.”

Dr. Patel and Corey also encourage people to monitor their symptoms and contact their doctor if they are concerned about developing or worsening symptoms. People should seek emergency care immediately if they experience:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest

  • New confusion

  • Inability to wake or stay awake

  • Bluish lips or face

Learn about flu and COVID-19 vaccines, testing and care.

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