Getting infected with Covid-19 is a frightening, isolating experience. But as more people endure it, the community of survivors is growing — and with them comes better guidance.
My husband and I got sick from the coronavirus in late March. We had so-called mild cases, meaning only that we weren’t hospitalized: In fact, we were sicker than we had ever been. Because we could breathe fine, we knew we weren’t supposed to go to the hospital. But what were we supposed to do?
The standard advice — rest, fluids and fever reducers — was and is essential, but at times it felt inadequate to the severity of the illness.
As we recovered, I spoke with many friends, colleagues and internet strangers going through similar ordeals. Here is some collective wisdom on how to manage noncritical cases of Covid-19.
When to get help
First, of course, you need to be confident that your illness can be managed at home. Most cases of Covid-19 can be. But if you develop any symptoms on this list, including trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, an inability to wake or stay awake and/or bluish lips or face, seek emergency care.
Some people will have relatively mild symptoms at first and then become more seriously ill. These patients are likely to develop shortness of breath four to eight days after their first symptoms, and “that’s really where people should start paying attention,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an internist at the Cambridge Health Alliance who was co-author of an article about the progression of Covid-19 symptoms.
If the shortness of breath worsens from day to day, Dr. Cohen said, that’s a sign to call your doctor. Less commonly, patients with low oxygen levels may experience dizziness or lightheadedness instead of shortness of breath, so keep an eye out for that too.
Otherwise, read on.
What you’ll need
If you’re reading this while healthy, buy basic supplies now, including a thermometer, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and rehydration drinks like Pedialyte.
A pulse oximeter can sometimes be helpful, both in flagging severe illness and in reassuring you of the opposite, my colleague Dana Goldstein says: If you feel short of breath but your oxygen level is normal, you may be able to avoid the hospital. (You should still contact your doctor.)
If you’re sick and don’t have supplies, see if a friend can pick them up for you, or if a grocery store or bodega will deliver. (Tip well!) Either way, avoid contact: Whether it’s a friend or a delivery person, have the bag left outside your door, and don’t open the door until the delivery person is gone.
Prescriptions can help
Over-the-counter drugs may not be enough. In particular, the coughing and nausea caused by Covid-19 can be severe enough to warrant prescription medication.
For my husband and me, benzonatate (for the cough) and promethazine (for the nausea) were lifesavers. Some colleagues were prescribed codeine-based cough medicine or Zofran. If you feel you might need them, ask your doctor about medications sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until you’re doubled over coughing or can’t keep anything down.
If you don’t have a primary care doctor, some urgent care clinics offer virtual appointments, and some pharmacies offer prescription delivery.
Ease your breathing
Dry air can exacerbate some symptoms such as coughing and chest tightness. If you have a humidifier, use it. If not, a hot shower works.
Several readers reported that they felt better when they lay on their stomach. A woman in Britain whose partner was sick for several weeks told me that a particular breathing exercise helped him:
You take a deep breath, hold it for 5 seconds and release. Do that 5 times, then on the 6th time on the release, cough hard. Do that cycle twice, then lie on your front and take slightly deeper breaths for 10 minutes. Try to do it a couple of times a day.
In some cases, your doctor may also prescribe an albuterol inhaler to reduce your cough and ease your breathing.
Monitor your symptoms
As soon as you get sick, start a detailed log. Every time you take your temperature — do it several times a day, at consistent times — log it. Every time you take a pill, log it. Every time you eat or drink, log it. If one symptom resolves or a new one develops, log it.
As my colleague Eliza Shapiro noted in a Twitter thread worth reading in full, this creates a detailed record to take along if you end up needing medical attention. It also helps you stay on top of your care.
Can I take more cough medicine yet? How long have I had this fever? Is it a little lower than it was yesterday? You won’t be able to keep these things straight while shivering in bed, but a spreadsheet can.
Mental health matters
Having Covid-19 is intensely stressful. It’s not unusual to feel depressed or anxious, or to have panic attacks. Don’t be embarrassed to talk to your doctor about your mental health — it’s just as important as your physical health.
Derek Norman, a news assistant at The Times, says that in the worst moments of his illness, when he felt short of breath and panicky, he would sit upright, focus on breathing steadily and picture a vivid memory.
I’d close my eyes and picture the exact details of a scene I had once experienced, and I’d completely immerse myself in that memory. Something like sitting at an outdoor cafe in Morocco. I’d try to recall the sounds of street life and the dry desert air on my skin, or the smell of the spices, hookah and exhaust swirling in the air. Very, very specific details that I look back fondly on. I’d continue to slowly breathe through it.
Tim Herrera, our Smarter Living editor, emphasized fresh air. That can be hard to come by safely when you’re contagious, but even if you live in a crowded area with no private outdoor space, it can help to open a window.
It’s also OK to not be OK. You don’t have to handle this “well,” whatever that means. You just have to get through each day. So go ahead and cry, binge Netflix, do a jigsaw puzzle, reread the entire “Animorphs” series — whatever gets you through the day.
Don’t expect a linear recovery
Some people have mild symptoms for the first few days and then suddenly get sicker. Some have fevers that go up and down repeatedly. Some are sick for two weeks straight, then have a few symptom-free days, then relapse. Some have lingering symptoms for months.
This is both maddening and very common. Give yourself as much time to rest as your job and financial situation will allow. For me and for several colleagues, that meant nearly three weeks of sick time.
Since tweeting about my experience last month, I’ve received many emails from people in the “this will never end” phase. I share the same screenshot with all of them: a text I sent to a friend on April 5.
“Why do I even bother giving good news when it’s only going to last a few hours?” I wrote. “I’m just so tired of this. I don’t know how to keep dealing with it.”
Every day, more people will hit that wall — and every day, more people will find their way past it. They will feel alone, but they won’t be.
Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting.