First comes a slight fever, then some coughing and chest heaviness. It might be the flu or just the common cold, or it could be the new coronavirus that’s got the world in a panic.
Many of us will contract this scary new virus at some point — some doctors say two-thirds of us, other experts suggest a third — but schools, malls and other gathering places are closed to prevent it from spreading so fast that patients overwhelm the nation’s health system.
But for most of us who get sick, the advice for treatment, save for the most severe cases, is the same as for a cold or the flu. And it sounds a lot like what mom used to prescribe: rest, fluids and most of all, chicken soup.
That and isolate yourself for a couple of weeks to keep from sharing it.
“A lot of the self-care advice is the same no matter what it is, with the social distancing aspect to it if it’s coronavirus,” said Dr. Richard Bruno, a primary care doctor at Chase Brexton Health Services.
Whether it’s flu, a cold or coronavirus, Bruno said, “you really need to get some rest.”
There is no specific treatment for COVID-19, so besides taking it easy, you’re going to want to treat your symptoms. Honey works better than most cough syrups. Antihistamines, including Zyrtec and Claritin, help if there is congestion.
Bruno recommends Tylenol over Advil for pain because it’s less harsh for people with most chronic health conditions. He said there’s not much science behind advice to avoid Advil-style anti-inflammatory drugs for coronavirus. (Tylenol is acetaminophen; Advil is ibuprofen.)
Stay hydrated with warm fluids like tea.
And this part gets repeated a lot by the public health community these days, but cover coughs with tissues that you throw away and wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds each time with soap. Singing the birthday song is optional.
If you suspect you have it, don’t rush off to the emergency room or even go to a doctor. Call your doctor, a nearby clinic or the local health department instead when symptoms start to ask for advice. The good news is that 80 percent of those with coronavirus have mild to moderate cases and recover well at home, doctors say.
But those who develop the telltale sign of a serious coronavirus case — difficulty breathing — call your doctor again. And if you feel you can’t breathe, you need to get to a hospital.
If you drive, call first. If you call 911, tell the operator your potential coronavirus status. Avoid public transportation.
Otherwise, stay physically apart from family and anyone else in the house. Stay isolated for 14 days, longer if you still have symptoms. Specifically: Stay inside at least 72 hours past when you last had a fever, other symptoms such as coughing have improved and it’s been seven days since symptoms first appeared, said Dr. Dr. Leticia Dzirasa, Baltimore City health commissioner.
Those with no symptoms but who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 need to quarantine themselves for 14 days to make sure they don’t develop symptoms, she said. The virus is very contagious. The average incubation period, the time for symptoms to develop, is five days, but they can surface from 2 to 14 days after exposure.
If you need help with groceries, medication, or just as important, some attention, many neighborhood associations have set up support networks.
“I wouldn’t push yourself at this point, especially if you have moderate symptoms,” Bruno said.
Many people will feel well enough to do some activities, but they should be mindful of their recovery and of spreading the illness.
That means some real inconveniences, such as staying inside or in your own backyard, if you think you might have been exposed, Dzirasa said.
Even if you don’t have symptoms, keep your in-person circle as small as possible. That means if your mother-in law is older and has underlying health conditions, she shouldn’t babysit. Dzirasa notes that most Maryland cases are in younger adults, but seniors are more at risk for complications.
The virus has sickened thousands in the United States, and hundreds of thousands across the globe, and no one yet knows when the peak will be reached.
The public health community is keeping tabs through testing, and though testing is ramping up, there aren’t enough supplies to go around. Testing requires a doctor’s order and instructions on where to safely go to be swabbed.
In reality, many people will wait days for results or just won’t be able to get tested, Dzirasa said. That means taking personal responsibility and isolating yourself if you have symptoms. Others must stay inside and away from others if they are exposed but have no symptoms yet.
A note about masks: Doctors say healthy people don’t need them and they should be reserved for medical staff and those who are sick.
As people hunker down, scientists remain busy learning about the virus, how it transmits and how to stop it. Here are a few things they’ve learned, according to a recent webcast by the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The virus spreads pretty easily from person to person, better than some other coronaviruses such as SARS, MERS and the common cold. So there are more infections, but most are mild. Younger people who have few or no symptoms are surely spreading the disease as they go about their day.
When infected people cough, relatively large droplets containing the virus land on other people or shared surfaces where the virus can live for up to 24 hours and be picked up on the hand of passersby.
Antimicrobial cleaners work well to kill the virus. Bleach mixed in a 1-to-10 ratio with water works, as does rubbing alcohol of 70%. At 90% it can be diluted with water a bit.
Warm weather may not slow the spread, as happens sometimes with flu viruses, since this is a new virus and no one who hasn’t had it has immunity.
“We have to prepare for dealing with this during the summer,” said Andy Pekosz, a Hopkins professor of molecular microbiology and immunology.
There are therapies in the works but nothing ready for prime time. That includes possibly using antibodies from people who have recovered, as well as older drugs developed for other purposes. Several vaccines are entering the testing phase, but they aren’t expected to be ready for 12 to 18 months. (It takes months to properly test a drug’s safety and effectiveness, let alone mass produce it.)
That’s why closing public gathering places such as restaurants, bars and malls is important to help stop spread. It’s even important to limit other outings, for routine doctor visits, for example. If you go to the grocery, wipe the cart and wash your hands well afterward. And don’t touch your face until you do.
Countries that have practiced so-called social distancing, keeping about six feet away from others, have been successful in curbing new cases, or at least curbing the number that occur at the same time, which eases demands on the health care system. That’s called flattening the curve.
All this talk of social distancing, however, only applies to physical space. Doctors and other say it’s important to keep social connections by calling, texting or otherwise staying connected.
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Those who are sick can open a door or window if no one is near. Those who are well should continue to get exercise, for their bodies and minds.
The pandemic is causing high levels of anxiety and stress for the sick and the healthy alike, said Christine Barnabic, an education program management specialist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. That makes self-care important.
She said those who normally work out should consider virtual workouts being offered free or at discounts by many gyms via Instagram or Facebook or smart phone or TV.
The large fitness chain Planet Fitness, for example, is offering free classes online each day. Some companies also are offering some free sessions of their meditation or breathing practices such as Headspace and Insight Timer.
“Keeping a routine. I think that’s big,” Barnabic said. “If I get off my routine of working out, that will get me down."
She also recommended rising at the regular time, maintaining a healthy diet, staying well hydrated, socializing (electronically) and getting some fresh (distant from others) air.
But, she added, “listen to your body, too. If you’re not feeling well, you do need to slow down.”