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Sharp Health News

How to treat mild COVID-19 symptoms at home

Feb. 1, 2021

Young woman taking medicine
We hear much about overcrowded ICUs as our health care heroes continue to treat thousands of COVID-19 patients with severe complications from the disease. What we don't often hear about is the majority of people with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 that can be safely treated at home.

According to The COVID Tracking Project, approximately 3.5% of all people with COVID-19 are hospitalized, though this percentage goes up or down based on an individual's age, ethnicity and health conditions. But in general, this means about 96% of people with COVID-19 are taking care of themselves or being cared for by loved ones at home.

For people who become sick with COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a few general care tips:
  • Rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as acetaminophen, to reduce fever or pain
  • Stay home to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others
OTC medications to treat COVID-19 symptoms
Dr. Robert Patel, a board-certified emergency medicine specialist with Sharp Memorial Hospital, says there are a few additional steps people might take to make themselves more comfortable as they recover.

Dr. Patel notes that nausea and diarrhea are common COVID-19 symptoms. Along with the CDC-recommended OTC medications, he also recommends having an OTC antidiarrheal, such as Imodium, on hand and talking to your doctor about whether a prescription nausea medication is appropriate.

Because a cough - along with fever, fatigue, loss of smell and difficulty breathing - is one of the top 5 COVID-19 symptoms, Merissa Corey, a pharmacy supervisor with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, says that you should also consider using cough syrup with the ingredients guaifenesin (to help you break up mucus) and dextromethorphan (to suppress a dry cough). Lozenges can help soothe a sore throat.

At-home equipment to help relieve symptoms
What's more, Dr. Patel and Corey say there is 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 encourages patients to also purchase a pulse oximeter - an electronic device that measures the level of oxygen in the red blood cells, also known as oxygen saturation.

"When treating COVID-19 at home, a pulse oximeter is a must," Dr. Patel says. "You can purchase one online or at your local drugstore for $20 or so. Difficulty breathing is what will potentially get you hospitalized, so if your 'pulse ox' is consistently below 91%, we need to check you out in the emergency department."

Other tips to manage COVID-19 symptoms
In combination with medications and at-home medical equipment, Dr. Patel and Corey note that there are additional ways to help relieve COVID-19 symptoms at home:

  • Maintain good nutrition. "You need some fuel to help your body fight the infection," Dr. Patel says.
  • Consider sleeping on your stomach. "In the hospital, patients on ventilators are placed in the prone position periodically, which does improve lung function," Dr. Patel says. "This hasn't been proven for outpatients, but anecdotally, I have heard people feel better sleeping on their stomachs or even turning side to side to improve breathing."
  • 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.
Dr. Patel and Corey join the CDC in encouraging 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 COVID-19 vaccines, testing, getting care and more.

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