So your test came back, and you have COVID-19. Though the coronavirus pandemic has been going on for nearly two years, we can't blame you for being confused about what your next steps are, especially with all the misinformation out there.
Don't worry. We spoke to two medical experts and have distilled advice on what to do—and what not to do—when you're infected with the coronavirus.
What to Do if You've Tested Positive for COVID-19
1. Isolate immediately.
Go home right away and don't see anyone. You're now officially in isolation. (Though most people use the words interchangeably, medical professionals use the word "isolation" for people who are infected with a contagious disease, while "quarantine" is for people who aren't sure if they're infected or not.)
"You're going to go home and isolate," said Timothy F. Brewer, M.D., a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA Health in Los Angeles. "If you're symptomatic, you're going to stay home a minimum of 10 days until you're feeling better with no fever for 24 hours without antipyretics [fever reducers]—aspirin, Tylenol, Advil or that kind of medicine."
Note that it's common to still suffer from some of the COVID symptoms, including loss of smell or taste, for as long as 18 months or more after you stopped being contagious, especially if you came down with the long-haul version.
Depending on your living circumstances, you may or may not have to make adjustments to your home while you're isolated. Ideally, you'd have a room to yourself and a bathroom to yourself. This could mean moving into the guest room, or it could mean your partner or roommate decamping to the living room couch. Of course, that part's easier if you live alone, but being single comes with its own challenges, too.
"If you can afford to get things delivered, that's preferable," Brewer said. "Or get someone to pick stuff up for you."
Regardless of whether they live with you or not, anyone who comes into close contact with you needs to take precautions.
"Optimally, anyone coming in to take care of you should be wearing a face mask and washing hands after they take care of you," Brewer said. "In household transmission, the more time you spend with someone who's sick, the more likely you are to get infected. The caretakers are more likely to get infected than non-caretakers."
2. Inform those you were in close contact with.
It's both morally and ethically imperative that you tell people you've potentially infected with the coronavirus. You should inform everyone you were in close contact with for the 72 hours before you got tested.
Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of someone for at least 15 minutes in a 24-hour period. That 15 minutes doesn't have to be continuous, either: If you hung out with a co-worker for 5 minutes over morning coffee in the break room, looked over their shoulder for 8 minutes as they churned out a report in the afternoon, and then spent 2 minutes on the elevator together on the way out of the work, that counts as 15 minutes of close contact for that day and you should let that co-worker know you've contracted COVID-19 and encourage them to get tested right away. And that holds whether both or either of you were wearing masks or not, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now, technically, the lab that did your test results is supposed to send your diagnosis to the local public health department, which is supposed to reach out to you and go down the list of people you've been in contact with so they can tell them to get tested. But the pandemic has stretched health agencies to the breaking point, and there's no reason for you to wait on those calls. Plus, your friends will undoubtedly appreciate hearing the news from you personally.
3. Tell your doctor.
Let your primary care doctor know you've come down with COVID, especially if you suffer from underlying health conditions. They may recommend specific actions based on your medical history.
"If you are immunocompromised or if you're a transplant patient, for example, you should be talking to your health care adviser," Brewer said.
Even if you don't have to take immune modulators or have other conditions, it's important for your regular doctor to know, as it's not yet clear what the long-term consequences of COVID are, and your history of infection may be key to figuring out a future medical issue.
4. Keep hydrated.
As with most illness, keeping your fluid levels up is going to help your body get better faster.
"You should hydrate at least 2 liters per day, eat healthy and get adequate sleep," said Purvi Parikh, M.D., an immunologist and allergist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
But don't sweat what you eat or what nonalcoholic drinks you consume too much, because as long as you can keep it down, it'll probably help, Brewer said.
"The important thing is keeping up on your fluids, especially if you're having fevers, sweats, diarrhea," he said. "You can eat and drink whatever you feel up to. There are no particular foods or drinks you need." (Though no foods will cure COVID, some foods can help you feel better—here's what to eat if you come down with the coronavirus.)
5. Be extra careful as a caretaker of infected kids under 12.
If it's your child who's come down with COVID-19 when you're not infected, you're going to have to try to take care of them without getting the virus yourself, which is going to be challenging. In one outbreak that started at a children's camp, almost all the spread of the coronavirus was from infected kids to the adults taking care of them.
Isolate the child in a separate room and keep your mask on around them. Try to encourage them to wear a mask whenever someone else is in the room with them. The child's designated caretaker should practice good hand hygiene after visits. If possible and if they're up to it, let the child spend time outdoors—physically distanced where possible, of course.
The good news for you is that, once your kid is feeling better, they're probably not going to spread the virus.
"Once the child's 6 to 10 days into it and feeling better, the risk of transmission is close to zero," Brewer said. "Once they're better and afebrile [not registering a fever] and off Tylenol, you don't have to worry anymore."
The good news for your kid? They can basically eat whatever they want in COVID isolation—doctor's orders.
"Ice cream is totally cool," Brewer said.
6. Get help if things get worse, especially right after the first week.
You shouldn't be surprised to come down with fever, fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches or congestion. But about 8 to 10 days into a COVID infection, about 15% of patients will get sicker. Most of those people will need to go to the hospital.
"If you're having trouble breathing or your coughing is getting worse, go get evaluated right away," Brewer said. "That's when people tend to go downhill. Don't wait around to see if you get sicker or better."
But no matter how far into your infection you are, you need to see a doctor immediately if you feel dizzy, short of breath, can't keep food or water down, have chest pain, start getting confused, turn pale or if your lips turn blue.
"You may be a candidate for monoclonal antibody infusion therapy or may need to be admitted to a hospital," Parikh said.
People who were vaccinated but get breakthrough COVID infections seem to be much less likely to experience severe COVID symptoms or need hospitalization.
7. Go ahead and use the usual over-the-counter cold medications.
The arsenal of over-the-counter winter flu and cold medications in your medicine cabinet shouldn't cause any problems when you have COVID, though you may want to avoid aspirin because of the small risk of Reye's syndrome.
"It's totally fine to take a decongestant if you're stuffed up, or acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen or other nonsteroidals for fevers and aches," Brewer said. "Sleeping aids? There's no problem with that."
8. Get vaccinated as soon as it's safe.
If you weren't vaccinated before you were infected, hopefully your encounter with COVID changed your mind. There's strong evidence that people who were infected with COVID and then were vaccinated stand a much smaller chance of getting reinfected.
Get the vaccine as soon as you can—the CDC currently doesn't recommend any minimum wait time between being infected with COVID and getting the vaccine in most cases, though you should, as always, consult your doctor.
"You can get the vaccine as soon as you feel well," Parikh said. "If you got monoclonal antibody as part of treatment, then you must wait 90 days."
What Not to Do When You Have COVID-19
1. Don't go out with friends.
If you get your test results while out with friends or at the office, the first thing you should do is ask yourself a critical question—as you're on your way home to isolate, of course.
"The first question is why are you being tested?" Brewer said. "If you were tested because you were feeling symptomatic, then you shouldn't have been out in the first place. If you were tested because you were exposed to somebody who had it, you should go home. That's an important distinction. If you're not feeling well, don't go out to dinner with your friends."
For the next 10 days, at least, your social life is on hold. Don't go out.
2. Don't have guests over.
Except for absolutely necessary caretakers, people who are infected with COVID-19 should not have guests over, no matter whether they're vaccinated or not.
3. Don't smoke, drink alcohol or do drugs.
Unless you want to prolong your isolation or increase your chances of ending up in the hospital, stay clean.
"I would avoid all alcohol and drugs, as that will delay your healing by suppressing your immune system and thus make it harder to recover," Parikh said.
In fact, COVID may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for smokers who want to stop.
"Nobody should be smoking cigarettes, so if you can use this as a reason to quit, that would be phenomenal," Brewer said. "Binge Netflix. Get a good book. War and Peace is fairly thick and fat. Settle in for the duration. Read all the Harry Potter books — that'll take you at least seven days to get through all seven books."
4. Don't get your COVID information from the internet or other dubious sources.
Between Google, the news and your social media feed, it can be hard to tell what information is real—and what information is false or even dangerous. (FYI: Here's how to tell if the health information you're reading online is actually true.)
"Unless you're reading the FDA, NIH or CDC websites or the local county health department, if you have questions about the right thing to do, please, rather than go to the internet, reach out to your health care provider," Brewer said. "Reach out to a credible, trusted resource rather than counting on Google. Do not take any prescriptions or animal medications just because you've read said something somewhere that says it works."
The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.