MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I’ve read a lot about how to prevent COVID-19. But what if I test positive and need to isolate, or even worse, get sick? Are there medications or supplies I should have on hand just in case?
This is a great question! Seven months into the pandemic, it’s a bit surprising that you’re the first person to submit this question. On the other hand, we know a lot more about this virus than we did even a few months ago, so today’s answer will be a lot more complete than it would have been last spring.
The first item everyone should have is a digital thermometer — and it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Whether you have symptoms of the virus or are asymptomatic and self-isolating after a positive test, recording your temperature at least twice a day is an important part of self-monitoring. An under-the-tongue thermometer will give you the most accurate reading. But don’t take your temperature within 30 minutes of eating, drinking, or exercising, or within six hours of taking medications that could lower your temperature, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. Based on an average body temperature of 98.6°F/37°C, a fever is typically defined as 100.4°F/38°C or higher. Generally speaking, a fever higher than 103°F/39.4° is cause for concern and should prompt a call to your healthcare provider.
An optional gadget you may want to have on hand is a pulse oximeter, a small device that clips onto a fingertip or earlobe and measures the level of oxygen in your bloodstream. Normal readings typically range from 94 to 100 percent. For most people, a blood-oxygen level under 90 is considered low and indicates a need for medical evaluation and treatment.
When it comes to COVID-19, a pulse oximeter could help you detect a serious condition known as “silent hypoxia.” Hypoxia is a drop in blood oxygenation associated with COVID-19 pneumonia or the early phases of acute respiratory distress syndrome. It’s often “silent” in COVID-19, because it occurs without triggering typical symptoms like shortness of breath, chest discomfort, or pain with breathing. Because of this, patients can be in critical condition by the time they feel ill enough to seek medical attention.
As far as medications, start by making sure you have at least a 30-day supply of any prescription medications you regularly take. Beyond that, while there are no medicines available specifically to treat COVID-19, there are over-the-counter medications that can help to relieve symptoms of the illness and make you feel more comfortable when you’re sick.
These include fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). These medications can also help with headaches and body aches. Early on, there was some concern that “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” (or NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and naproxen, might actually make coronavirus symptoms worse, but there’s no evidence that is true.
However, unless your fever is particularly high or making you extremely miserable, you might think about sweating it out. There’s some evidence that fever-reducing drugs interfere with the body’s natural defenses against infection. At least one study found that symptoms lasted longer when patients took fever-reducing drugs — though we don’t know if this is the case in individuals with COVID-19. And since both NSAIDs and acetaminophen have potential side effects, you should consult your own healthcare provider about which fever-reducing medication to take or whether you should take medication at all.
Cough is another common symptom. For a wet cough with mucus, you’ll want an expectorant that contains guaifenesin (for example, Robitussin or Mucinex). For a dry cough, try a cough suppressant that contains dextromethorphan (for example, Delsym). Throat lozenges may also help to sooth a throat that is sore from coughing. And for a stuffy or runny nose, you might want a nasal decongestant that contains phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine.
Finally, we now know that gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea or diarrhea, are common with COVID-19. Because both fever and diarrhea can cause dehydration, you might want to have some electrolyte-replenishing drinks, like Pedialyte, on hand. Regular sports drinks will also be helpful, but they tend to be more sugary and less effective.
No matter how well stocked your home medicine cabinet may be, however, it’s important to recognize the limits of over-the-counter medications and other types of home care. If you’re self-isolating at home after being diagnosed with COVID-19, it’s important to monitor your symptoms closely and be prepared to seek medical attention immediately if you experience any “emergency warning signs” for the illness. These include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, or bluish lips or face.
Fortunately, as the CDC notes, most people who contract COVID-19 will be only mildly ill and able to recover fully at home. So, make sure you have what you might need on hand. And, in the meantime, keep wearing those masks, physically distancing, and taking all those other precautions you’ve read about. Because when it comes to COVID-19, there’s something even better than being prepared. It’s being prepared, and then not getting sick at all.