How to Recover From Covid-19 at Home

Rest and fluids are essential, but not always enough. Here are some more things you can do to feel better.

Credit…Mjrodafotografia/Getty Images


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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 1, 2020

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

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.

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.

“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.

Maggie Astor is a political reporter based in New York. Previously, she was a general assignment reporter and a copy editor for The Times and a reporter for The Record in New Jersey. @MaggieAstor
A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Get Through Covid-19 at Home.


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