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If you've been exposed to the coronavirus
If you've been exposed, are sick, or are caring for someone with COVID-19
If you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or begin to experience symptoms of the disease, you may be asked to self-quarantine or self-isolate. What does that entail, and what can you do to prepare yourself for an extended stay at home? How soon after you're infected will you start to be contagious? And what can you do to prevent others in your household from getting sick?
Visit our Coronavirus Resource Center for more information on coronavirus and COVID-19.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Some people infected with the virus have no symptoms. When the virus does cause symptoms, common ones include fever, body ache, dry cough, fatigue, chills, headache, sore throat, loss of appetite, and loss of smell. In some people, COVID-19 causes more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.
People with COVID-19 may also experience neurological symptoms, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, or both. These may occur with or without respiratory symptoms.
For example, COVID-19 affects brain function in some people. Specific neurological symptoms seen in people with COVID-19 include loss of smell, inability to taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures, and stroke.
In addition, some people have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort associated with COVID-19. The virus that causes COVID-19 has also been detected in stool, which reinforces the importance of hand washing after every visit to the bathroom and regularly disinfecting bathroom fixtures.
What should I do if I think I or my child may have a COVID-19 infection?
First, call your doctor or pediatrician for advice.
If you do not have a doctor and you are concerned that you or your child may have COVID-19, contact your local board of health. They can direct you to the best place for testing and treatment in your area.
If you have a high or very low body temperature, shortness of breath, confusion, or feeling you might pass out, you need to seek immediate medical evaluation. Call the urgent care center or emergency department ahead of time to let the staff know that you are coming, so they can be prepared for your arrival.
How do I know if I have COVID-19 or the regular flu?
COVID-19 often causes symptoms similar to those a person with a bad cold or the flu would experience. And like the flu, the symptoms can progress and become life-threatening.
So far there has been much less than the usual number of cases of influenza, likely due to the enhanced public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID.
Therefore, at the current time, people with "flulike" symptoms should assume they have COVID. That means isolating and contacting your doctor or local board of health to arrange testing.
I recently spent time with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. I’m fully vaccinated. Do I need to get tested?
Yes, you do. In July 2021, the CDC recommended that anyone who is fully vaccinated and comes into contact with someone who has, or is suspected of having, COVID-19 should get tested three to five days after exposure. In addition, you should wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result. If you are vaccinated, you do not need to quarantine, but you should isolate if you develop symptoms or receive a positive test result.
Previously, the CDC had said that someone who was fully vaccinated only needed to get tested after exposure if they were experiencing symptoms. The change follows new evidence regarding the Delta variant, which shows that people who are vaccinated and then get infected (breakthrough infections) can spread the virus to others, perhaps to the same extent as those who are unvaccinated.
If you are not fully vaccinated, a 14-day quarantine remains the best way to avoid spreading the virus to others after you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19. According to CDC guidelines, you may discontinue quarantine after a minimum of 10 days if you do not have any symptoms, or after a minimum of seven days if you have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of when you plan to end quarantine.
How is someone tested for COVID-19?
A specialized diagnostic test must be done to confirm that a person has an active coronavirus infection. Most often a clinician takes a swab of your nose (or both your nose and throat). Some tests may be done using a saliva sample. The sample is then checked for the virus's genetic material (PCR test) or for specific viral proteins (antigen test).
Antibody tests can tell if someone has been infected with COVID-19. But the infected person doesn't begin producing antibodies immediately. It can take as long as three weeks for a blood antibody test to turn positive. That's why it is not useful as a diagnostic test for someone with new symptoms.
Are there at-home tests for COVID-19?
Available over the counter, without a doctor's prescription
The FDA has granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to the first COVID-19 test that can be obtained without a doctor's prescription and fully performed at home. The Ellume COVID-19 Home Test is approved for use in adults and in children age 2 and older, with or without COVID-19 symptoms.
To take the test, you collect a nasal swab, stir it in a vial of processing fluid, then place a drop of the fluid in an analyzer. The device, which detects coronavirus antigens, delivers a positive or negative test result to your smartphone within 20 minutes.
Like other antigen tests, this test is less accurate than "gold standard" PCR tests, but initial studies suggest the accuracy comes close to PCR testing. Until there is much more real-world experience with this home test, the FDA recommends interpreting any result with caution.
If you have COVID-like symptoms, you should self-isolate and contact your doctor whether your test is positive or negative. Your doctor will likely suggest a PCR test for confirmation. You should also self-isolate and call your doctor if you get a positive test result, even if you don't have symptoms. A negative test if you don't have symptoms makes it very unlikely that you are infected. However, you should continue to follow standard prevention strategies.
This test will be available in drugstores and is expected to cost about $30.
Available with a doctor's prescription
The FDA has approved a diagnostic test for COVID-19 that can be completed entirely at home, from sample collection to receiving the results. Other FDA-approved COVID-19 tests allow at-home sample collection, but still have to be shipped to a laboratory for processing.
The Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit is approved for people ages 14 and older who are suspected of having COVID-19. It requires a doctor's prescription. The company does not expect the test to be widely available until the spring of 2021.
To perform the test, you swirl a swab in both nostrils, then stir the swab in a vial of chemicals. The vial is then plugged into a battery-powered test unit, which returns a positive or negative test result within 30 minutes.
The test works by making copies of the virus's genetic material (if present) until it reaches detectable levels. It does this using a technique called loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP). The method is similar to PCR, the gold standard of COVID-19 diagnostic testing. The LAMP test provides much faster results, but it is less accurate. In a head-to-head comparison, the Lucira test missed 6% of people who tested positive for COVID by PCR.
Because a person can be infected and have a negative LAMP test, you should always self-quarantine if you have symptoms consistent with COVID, or have had recent contact with someone who has the infection, until you can get a PCR test.
The FDA has granted emergency use authorization to a rapid antigen test for COVID-19. How is it different from other tests on the market?
The BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card, as the test is known, detects antigen proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Unlike other diagnostic tests for COVID-19, BinaxNOW does not require a laboratory or other equipment to process or analyze the test results. This makes it portable and fast — results are available within 15 minutes.
This test is approved for use in people who are suspected of having COVID-19, and must be done within seven days of when their symptoms began. A prescription is needed to get this test, which can be performed in authorized locations including doctor's offices and emergency rooms.
To perform the test, a sample obtained using a nasal swab is inserted into the BinaxNOW test card. The test is a lateral flow immunoassay, which works like a pregnancy test. The appearance of colored lines on the test strip indicates whether or not you have tested positive for COVID-19. The test comes with a smartphone app that can be used to share test results.
Positive test results are highly specific, meaning that if you test positive you are very likely to be infected, particularly if you are tested during the first week of infection when you are experiencing symptoms. False negatives are a bigger concern. As with other antigen tests, BinaxNOW can miss infections, producing negative test results in people who are actually infected.
Still, this test could have an important role during this pandemic. It offers a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to test more people, more quickly.
What is the difference between a PCR test and an antigen test for COVID-19?
PCR tests and antigen tests are both diagnostic tests, which means that they can be used to determine whether you currently have an active coronavirus infection. However, there are important differences between these two types of tests.
PCR tests detect the presence of the virus's genetic material using a technique called reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR. For this test, a sample may be collected through a nasal or throat swab, or a saliva sample may be used. The sample is typically sent to a laboratory where coronavirus RNA (if present) is extracted from the sample and converted into DNA. The DNA is then amplified, meaning that many of copies of the viral DNA are made, in order to produce a measurable result. The accuracy of any diagnostic test depends on many factors, including whether the sample was collected properly, when during the course of illness the testing was done, and whether the sample was maintained in appropriate conditions while it was shipped to the laboratory. Generally speaking, PCR tests are highly accurate. However, it can take days to over a week to get the results of a PCR test.
Antigen tests detect specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus. They are sometimes referred to as rapid diagnostic tests because it can take less than an hour to get the test results. Positive antigen test results are highly specific, meaning that if you test positive you are very likely to be infected. However, there is a higher chance of false negatives with antigen tests, which means that a negative result cannot definitively rule out an active infection. If you have a negative result on an antigen test, your doctor may order a PCR test to confirm the result.
It may be helpful to think of a COVID antigen test as you would think of a rapid strep test or a rapid flu test. A positive result for any of these tests is likely to be accurate, and allows diagnosis and treatment to begin quickly, while a negative result often results in further testing to confirm or overturn the initial result.
How do saliva tests compare to nasal swab tests for diagnosing COVID-19?
Samples for COVID-19 tests may be collected through a long swab that is inserted into the nose and sometimes down to the throat, or from a saliva sample.
The saliva test is easier to perform — spitting into a cup versus submitting to a swab — and more comfortable. Because a person can independently spit into a cup, the saliva test does not require interaction with a healthcare worker. This cuts down on the need for masks, gowns, gloves, and other protective equipment.
Either saliva or swab samples may be used for PCR tests, which detect genetic material from the coronavirus. Swab or saliva samples can also be used for antigen tests, which detect specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus.
A systematic review and meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that saliva- and nasal swab-based tests that used a technique similar to PCR were similarly accurate. A positive result on either test meant that it was accurate at diagnosing the infection 99% of the time. However, approximately 16 out of 100 people who are infected will be missed.
These results are very similar to prior studies, reinforcing that a single negative swab or saliva test does not mean you don’t have COVID. If you have symptoms suggestive of COVID, presume you may still be infected to avoid transmitting the virus to others.
How reliable are the tests for COVID-19?
Two types of diagnostic tests are currently available in the US. PCR tests detect viral RNA. Antigen tests, also called rapid diagnostic tests, detect specific proteins on the surface of the coronavirus. Antigen test results may come back in as little as 15 to 45 minutes; you may wait several days or longer for PCR test results.
The accuracy of any diagnostic test depends on many factors, including whether the sample was collected properly. For PCR tests, which are typically analyzed in a laboratory, test results may be affected by the conditions in which the test was shipped to the laboratory.
Results may also be affected by the timing of the test. For example, if you are tested on the day you were infected, your test result is almost guaranteed to come back negative, because there are not yet enough viral particles in your nose or saliva to detect. The chance of getting a false negative test result decreases if you are tested a few days after you were infected, or a few days after you develop symptoms.
Generally speaking, if a test result comes back positive, it is almost certain that the person is infected.
A negative test result is less definite. There is a higher chance of false negatives with antigen tests. If you have a negative result on an antigen test, your doctor may order a PCR test to confirm the result.
If you experience COVID-like symptoms and get a negative PCR test result, there is no reason to repeat the test unless your symptoms get worse. If your symptoms do worsen, call your doctor or local or state healthcare department for guidance on further testing. You should also self-isolate at home. Wear a mask when interacting with members of your household. And practice physical distancing.
I've heard that the immune system produces different types of antibodies when a person is infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus. How do they differ? Why is this important?
When a person gets a viral or bacterial infection, a healthy immune system makes antibodies against one or more components of the virus or bacterium.
The COVID-19 coronavirus contains ribonucleic acid (RNA) surrounded by a protective layer, which has spike proteins on the outer surface that can latch on to certain human cells. Once inside the cells, the viral RNA starts to replicate and also turns on the production of proteins, both of which allow the virus to infect more cells and spread throughout the body, especially to the lungs.
While the immune system could potentially respond to different parts of the virus, it's the spike proteins that get the most attention. Immune cells recognize the spike proteins as a foreign substance and begin producing antibodies in response.
There are two main categories of antibodies:
Binding antibodies. These antibodies can bind to either the spike protein or a different protein known as the nucleocapsid protein. Binding antibodies can be detected with blood tests starting about one week after the initial infection. If antibodies are found, it's extremely likely that the person has been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus. The antibody level declines over time after an infection, sometimes to an undetectable level.
Binding antibodies help fight the infection, but they might not offer protection against getting reinfected in the future. It depends on whether they are also neutralizing antibodies.
Neutralizing antibodies. The body makes these antibodies specifically against the spike protein. In the laboratory, scientists have observed that neutralizing antibodies block the virus from getting into live cells. And human studies have shown that neutralizing antibodies made against other coronaviruses help prevent re-infection.
Scientists are optimistic that the same will be true for the COVID-19 coronavirus, and that neutralizing antibodies will block cell-to-cell transmission of this virus in humans, and offer protection against reinfection, at least for two to three months.
In November 2020, the FDA authorized emergency use of a test for COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies.
Can a person who has been infected with coronavirus get infected again?
Natural immunity to COVID-19 is the protection that results from having been sick. But we don't know how long natural immunity lasts, or how strong it is. So can we count on natural immunity to protect us from reinfection? If so, for how long? Unfortunately, we don't know the answer to either of those questions.
There have been some confirmed cases of reinfection with COVID-19. In other words, a person got sick with COVID-19, recovered, and then became infected again. This is rare, but it can happen.
The CDC states that people who have gotten sick with COVID-19 may still benefit from getting vaccinated. For now, people are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine whether or not they were previously infected. Vaccination criteria may change in the future as scientists learn more about natural immunity after COVID illness.
It's also worth noting that someone who has been re-infected — even someone with no symptoms — has the potential to spread the virus to others. That means that everyone, even those who have recovered from coronavirus infection, and those who have been vaccinated, should continue to follow CDC guidance on mask wearing and other prevention measures.
Can a person who has been infected with coronavirus get infected again?
Natural immunity to COVID-19 is the protection that results from having been sick. But we don't know how long natural immunity lasts, or how strong it is. We are learning that vaccination strengthens the natural immune response and reduces the risk that you will get infected again.
There have been confirmed cases of reinfection with COVID-19. In other words, a person got sick with COVID-19, recovered, and then became infected again. It's also worth noting that someone who has been reinfected — even someone with no symptoms — has the potential to spread the virus to others.
We have also learned that people who have gotten sick with COVID-19 benefit from getting vaccinated. A study published in MMWR reported that people who were unvaccinated were about twice as likely to be reinfected as people who were fully vaccinated.
The bottom line? Get vaccinated whether or not you’ve already had COVID-19.
What is serologic (antibody) testing for COVID-19? What can it be used for?
A serologic test is a blood test that looks for antibodies created by your immune system. There are many reasons you might make antibodies, the most important of which is to help fight infections. The serologic test for COVID-19 specifically looks for antibodies against the COVID-19 virus.
Your body takes one to three weeks after you have acquired the infection to develop antibodies to this virus. For this reason, serologic tests are not sensitive enough to accurately diagnose an active COVID-19 infection, even in people with symptoms.
However, serologic tests can help identify anyone who has recovered from coronavirus. This may include people who were not initially identified as having COVID-19 because they had no symptoms, had mild symptoms, chose not to get tested, had a false-negative test, or could not get tested for any reason. Serologic tests will provide a more accurate picture of how many people have been infected with, and recovered from, coronavirus, as well as the true fatality rate.
Serologic tests may also provide information about whether people become immune to coronavirus once they've recovered and, if so, how long that immunity lasts.
The accuracy of serologic tests varies depending on the test and when in the course of infection the test is performed.
How soon after I'm infected with the new coronavirus will I start to be contagious?
The time from exposure to symptom onset (known as the incubation period) is thought to be two to 14 days, though symptoms typically appear within four or five days after exposure.
We know that a person with COVID-19 may be contagious 48 hours before starting to experience symptoms. People may actually be most likely to spread the virus to others during the 48 hours before they start to experience symptoms.
For people who are not fully vaccinated, wearing masks, particularly indoors, can help reduce the risk that someone who is infected but not yet experiencing symptoms may unknowingly infect others. As of July 2021, the CDC is also advising people who are fully vaccinated to wear masks in public indoor places in areas of the country with substantial or high transmission of the virus.
Can people without symptoms spread the virus to others?
"Without symptoms" can refer to two groups of people: those who eventually do have symptoms (pre-symptomatic) and those who never go on to have symptoms (asymptomatic). During this pandemic, we have seen that people without symptoms can spread the coronavirus infection to others.
A person with COVID-19 may be contagious 48 hours before starting to experience symptoms. In fact, people without symptoms may be more likely to spread the illness, because they are unlikely to be isolating and may not adopt behaviors designed to prevent spread.
But what about people who never go on to develop symptoms? A published in JAMA Network Open found that almost one out of every four infections may be transmitted by individuals with asymptomatic infections.
We are learning that people who are vaccinated are less likely to infect others. However, even people who are fully vaccinated can carry greater amounts of the Delta variant (now the dominant virus in the US), making it more likely that they could spread the virus to others. That’s one reason why, in July 2021, the CDC advised people who are fully vaccinated to wear masks in public indoor places in areas of the country with substantial or high transmission of the virus.
People who are not vaccinated remain at increased risk for becoming infected and infecting others. For this group, the CDC continues to recommend mask wearing and other preventive measures in some outdoor settings and in most indoor settings.
For how long after I am infected will I continue to be contagious? At what point in my illness will I be most contagious?
People are thought to be most contagious early in the course of their illness, when they are beginning to experience symptoms, especially if they are coughing and sneezing. But people with no symptoms can also spread the coronavirus to other people. In fact, people who are infected may be more likely to spread the illness if they are asymptomatic, or in the days before they develop symptoms, because they are less likely to be isolating or adopting behaviors designed to prevent spread.
By the 10th day after COVID symptoms begin, most people will no longer be contagious, as long as their symptoms have continued to improve and their fever has resolved. People who test positive for the virus but never develop symptoms over the following 10 days after testing are probably no longer contagious, but again there are documented exceptions.
A full, 14-day quarantine remains the best way to avoid spreading the virus to others after you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19. However, according to CDC guidelines, you may discontinue quarantine after a minimum of 10 days if you do not have any symptoms, or after a minimum of seven days if you have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of when you plan to end quarantine.
If you are fully vaccinated and have been around someone with or suspected of having COVID-19 you do not need to quarantine. However, as of July 2021, the CDC recommends that you be tested thre to five days after exposure, and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.
If I get sick with COVID-19, how long until I will feel better?
It varies. Most people with mild cases appear to recover within one to two weeks. However, recent surveys conducted by the CDC found that recovery may take longer than previously thought, even for adults with milder cases who do not require hospitalization. The CDC survey found that one-third of these adults had not returned to normal health within two to three weeks of testing positive for COVID-19. Among younger adults (ages 18 to 34) who did not require hospitalization and who did not have any underlying health conditions, nearly one in five had not returned to normal health within two to three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19. With severe cases, recovery can take six weeks or more.
Some people may experience longer-term physical, cognitive, and psychological problems. Their symptoms may alternately improve and worsen over time, and can include a variety of difficulties, from fatigue and trouble concentrating to anxiety, muscle weakness, and continuing shortness of breath.
I had COVID-19 a few months ago. Am I at increased risk for health problems in the future?
It does appear that people who recover from COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing other medical conditions, at least in the short term.
One study, published in The BMJ, collected laboratory test and hospital admissions data from a health plan in the US. The researchers compared data from more than 190,000 adults, ages 18 to 65 years, who tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in 2020, to data from a control group that was collected in 2019, before the pandemic. The researchers followed the participants for six months after they tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and recorded any new health complications.
They found that 14% of people who had had COVID-19 developed a new medical issue during the following six months; this was nearly 5% higher than the pre-pandemic control group, a significant difference. New medical problems affected a range of body systems and included respiratory failure, abnormal heart rhythms, diabetes, neurological problems, and liver and kidney problems. Increased risk was seen in younger, previously healthy people, but was higher in older people and those with pre-existing medical problems.
Another study, published in Nature, compared the health records of more than 73,000 users of the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but were never hospitalized, to those of nearly five million other VHA users who never tested positive for COVID-19 and were never hospitalized. For six months following the first 30 days after infection, people who had had COVID-19 were significantly more likely to die or to experience a medical or mental health problem that they had never had before.
These studies provide yet another reason to get a COVID-19 vaccine if you are eligible.
Who are long-haulers? And what is post-viral syndrome?
Long haulers are people who have not fully recovered from COVID-19 weeks or even months after first experiencing symptoms. Some long haulers experience continuous symptoms for weeks or months, while others feel better for weeks, then relapse with old or new symptoms. The constellation of symptoms long haulers experience, sometimes called post-COVID-19 syndrome or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), is not unique to this infection. Other infections, such as Lyme disease, can cause similar long-lasting symptoms.
Emerging research may help predict who will become a long hauler. One study found that COVID-19 patients who experienced more than five symptoms during their first week of illness were significantly more likely to become long haulers. Certain symptoms — fatigue, headache, difficulty breathing, a hoarse voice, and muscle or body aches — experienced alone or in combination during the first week of illness also increased the chances of becoming a long hauler, as did increasing age and higher body mass index (BMI).
Though these factors may increase the likelihood of long-term symptoms, anyone can become a long hauler. Many long haulers initially have mild to moderate symptoms — or no symptoms at all — and do not require hospitalization. Previously healthy young adults, not just older adults with coexisting medical conditions, are also experiencing post-COVID-19 syndrome.
Symptoms of post-COVID-19 syndrome, like symptoms of COVID-19 itself, can vary widely. Some of the more common lasting symptoms include fatigue, worsening of symptoms after physical or mental activity, brain fog, shortness of breath, chills, body ache, headache, joint pain, chest pain, cough, and lingering loss of taste or smell. Many long haulers report cognitive dysfunction or memory loss that affects their day-to-day ability to do things like make decisions, have conversations, follow instructions, and drive. The common thread is that long haulers haven't returned to their pre-COVID health, and ongoing symptoms are negatively affecting their quality of life.
There's already some speculation, but no definite answers, about what is causing these ongoing symptoms. Some researchers suspect that SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers long-lasting changes in the immune system. Others propose that it triggers autonomic nervous system dysregulation, which can impact heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, among other things.
In February 2021, the National Institutes of Health announced a $1.15 billion initiative to support research into the causes and ultimately the prevention and treatment of long-haul COVID.
Many long haulers never had laboratory confirmation of COVID-19, which can make it tricky to diagnose post-COVID-19 syndrome. Early on in the pandemic, tests were scarce. Many people who suspected they had COVID-19 self-isolated without getting a test, or were refused a COVID test when they requested one. And the tests themselves have not been entirely reliable; both diagnostic tests and antibody tests may return false negative results if taken too early or too late in the course of illness.
How long after I start to feel better will be it be safe for me to go back out in public again?
The most recent CDC guidance states that someone who has had COVID-19 can discontinue isolation once they have met the following criteria:
- It has been more than 10 days since your symptoms began.
- You have been fever-free for more than 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.
- Other symptoms have improved.
The CDC is no longer recommending a negative COVID-19 test before going back out in public.
Anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 but never experienced symptoms may discontinue isolation 10 days after they first tested positive for COVID-19.
What's the difference between self-isolation and self-quarantine, and who should consider them?
Self-isolation is voluntary isolation at home by those who have or are likely to have COVID-19 and are experiencing mild symptoms of the disease (in contrast to those who are severely ill and may require hospitalization). The purpose of self-isolation is to prevent spread of infection from an infected person to others who are not infected. If possible, the decision to isolate should be based on physician recommendation. If you have tested positive for COVID-19, you should self-isolate.
You should strongly consider self-isolation if you
- have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting test results
- have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus and are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (fever, cough, difficulty breathing), whether or not you have been tested.
You may also consider self-isolation if you have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) but have not had known exposure to the new coronavirus and have not been tested for it. In this case, it may be reasonable to isolate yourself for a minimum of 10 days from when you begin to experience symptoms.
Self-quarantine is advised for anyone who has been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, regardless of whether you are experiencing symptoms. The purpose of self-quarantine (as with self-isolation) is to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. A full, 14-day quarantine remains the best way to ensure that you don't spread the virus to others. However, according to CDC guidelines, you may discontinue quarantine after a minimum of 10 days if you do not have any symptoms, or after a minimum of seven days if you have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of when you plan to end quarantine. If you are fully vaccinated and have been around someone with or suspected of having COVID-19, you do not need to quarantine. However, as of July 2021, the CDC recommends that you be tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.
What does it really mean to self-isolate or self-quarantine? What should or shouldn't I do?
If you are sick with COVID-19 or think you may be infected with the COVID-19 virus, it is important not to spread the infection to others while you recover. While home-isolation or home-quarantine may sound like a staycation, you should be prepared for a long period during which you might feel disconnected from others and anxious about your health and the health of your loved ones. Staying in touch with others by phone or online can be helpful to maintain social connections, ask for help, and update others on your condition.
Here's what the CDC recommends to minimize the risk of spreading the infection to others in your home and community.
Stay home except to get medical care
- Do not go to work, school, or public areas.
- Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.
Call ahead before visiting your doctor
- Call your doctor and tell them that you have or may have COVID-19. This will help the healthcare provider's office to take steps to keep other people from getting infected or exposed.
Separate yourself from other people and animals in your home
- As much as possible, stay in a specific room and away from other people in your home. Use a separate bathroom, if available.
- Restrict contact with pets and other animals while you are sick with COVID-19, just like you would around other people. When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a face mask.
Wear a face mask if you are sick
- Wear a face mask when you are around other people or pets and before you enter a doctor's office or hospital.
Cover your coughs and sneezes
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw used tissues in a lined trash can.
- Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you sneeze. If soap and water are not available, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Clean your hands often
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rubbing them together until they feel dry.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Don't share personal household items
- Do not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home.
- After using these items, they should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.
Clean all "high-touch" surfaces every day
High touch surfaces include counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables.
- Clean and disinfect areas that may have any bodily fluids on them.
- A list of products suitable for use against COVID-19 is available here. This list has been pre-approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Monitor your symptoms
- Monitor yourself for fever by taking your temperature twice a day and remain alert for cough or difficulty breathing.
- If you have not had symptoms and you begin to feel feverish or develop fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, immediately limit contact with others if you have not already done so. Call your doctor or local health department to determine whether you need a medical evaluation.
- Seek prompt medical attention if your illness is worsening, for example if you have difficulty breathing. Before going to a doctor's office or hospital, call your doctor and tell them that you have, or are being evaluated for, COVID-19.
- Put on a face mask before you enter a healthcare facility or any time you may come into contact with others.
- If you have a medical emergency and need to call 911, notify the dispatch personnel that you have or are being evaluated for COVID-19. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.
What types of medications and health supplies should I have on hand for an extended stay at home?
Try to stock at least a 30-day supply of any needed prescriptions. If your insurance permits 90-day refills, that's even better. Make sure you also have over-the-counter medications and other health supplies on hand.
Medical and health supplies
- prescription medications
- prescribed medical supplies such as glucose and blood-pressure monitoring equipment
- fever and pain medicine, such as acetaminophen
- cough and cold medicines
- antidiarrheal medication
- fluids with electrolytes
- soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- tissues, toilet paper, disposable diapers, tampons, sanitary napkins
- garbage bags.
When can I discontinue my self-quarantine?
If you have not been vaccinated, a full, 14-day quarantine remains the best way to ensure that you don't spread the virus to others after you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
However, according to CDC guidelines, you may discontinue quarantine after a minimum of 10 days if you do not have any symptoms, or after a minimum of seven days if you have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of when you plan to end quarantine.
If you are fully vaccinated and have been around someone with or suspected of having COVID-19, you do not need to self-quarantine. However, as of July 2021, the CDC recommends that you be tested three to five days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.
How can I protect myself while caring for someone that may have COVID-19?
You should take many of the same precautions as you would if you were caring for someone with the flu:
- Stay in another room or be separated from the person as much as possible. Use a separate bedroom and bathroom, if available.
- Make sure that shared spaces in the home have good air flow. If possible, open a window.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60 to 95% alcohol, covering all surfaces of your hands and rubbing them together until they feel dry. Use soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Extra precautions:
- You and the person should wear a face mask if you are in the same room.
- Wear a disposable face mask and gloves when you touch or have contact with the person's blood, stool, or body fluids, such as saliva, sputum, nasal mucus, vomit, urine.
- Throw out disposable face masks and gloves after using them. Do not reuse.
- First remove and throw away gloves. Then, immediately clean your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Next, remove and throw away the face mask, and immediately clean your hands again with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Do not share household items such as dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, bedding, or other items with the person who is sick. After the person uses these items, wash them thoroughly.
- Clean all "high-touch" surfaces, such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables, every day. Also, clean any surfaces that may have blood, stool, or body fluids on them. Use a household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash laundry thoroughly.
- Immediately remove and wash clothes or bedding that have blood, stool, or body fluids on them.
- Wear disposable gloves while handling soiled items and keep soiled items away from your body. Clean your hands immediately after removing your gloves.
- Place all used disposable gloves, face masks, and other contaminated items in a lined container before disposing of them with other household waste. Clean your hands (with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) immediately after handling these items.
My parents are older, which puts them at higher risk for COVID-19, and they don't live nearby. How can I help them if they get sick?
Caring from a distance can be stressful. Start by talking to your parents about what they would need if they were to get sick. Put together a single list of emergency contacts for their (and your) reference, including doctors, family members, neighbors, and friends. Include contact information for their local public health department.
You can also help them to plan ahead. For example, ask your parents to give their neighbors or friends a set of house keys. Have them stock up on prescription and over-the counter medications, health and emergency medical supplies, and nonperishable food and household supplies. Check in regularly by phone, Skype, or however you like to stay in touch.
Can people infect pets with the COVID-19 virus?
The virus that causes COVID-19 does appear to spread from people to pets, according to the FDA, though this is uncommon. Research has found that cats and ferrets are more likely to become infected than dogs.
If you have a pet, do the following to reduce their risk of infection:
- Avoid letting pets interact with people or animals that do not live in your household.
- Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
- Walk dogs on a leash maintaining at least six feet from other people and animals.
- Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
If you become sick with COVID-19, restrict contact with your pets, just like you would around other people. This means you should forgo petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding with your pet until you are feeling better. When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick. If you must care for your pet while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with your pets and wear a face mask.
At present, it is considered unlikely that pets can spread the COVID-19 virus to humans. However, pets can spread other infections that cause illness, including E. coli and Salmonella, so wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after interacting with your animal companions.
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We asked Dr. Mallika Marshall, medical reporter for CBS-affiliate WBZ TV in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, how we should react when we start to experience a dry cough or perhaps spike a fever. Who do you call? How do you protect your family? When does it make sense to move toward an emergency department, and how should we prepare? Dr. Marshall is the host of Harvard Health Publishing's online course series, and an urgent care physician at Mass General Hospital.
Visit our Coronavirus Resource Center for more information on coronavirus and COVID-19.
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