How do you care for someone with COVID-19?

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The new coronavirus has infected people around the world, but what do you do if COVID-19 infects someone in your home? 

If the person isn't one of the 20% of patients who require hospital treatment, you'll need to begin the delicate dance of caring for that person while also protecting yourself and others in your home from the contagion. 

In short, you'll want to isolate the patient from the rest of the household, but also keep the patient supplied with plenty of liquids and take measures to help relieve their discomfort.

Related: Latest COVID-19 news and US case counts

First, get in touch with a health care provider if someone you live with is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, fatigue and diarrhea. If nearby testing is available, the patient might be directed to a hospital or a drive-through facility. 

However, tests are in short supply, so health care professionals may advise the person to stay home to begin self-isolation. If it's any consolation, most cases of COVID-19 are mild, meaning that these people "are able to recover at home without medical care," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

However, these mild cases are still contagious, so bar any outside visitors from the home (you should be doing this anyway right now). Pets should also be kept away from the ill person, as both cats and dogs have picked up the disease from their sick owners.

A room of one's own

Isolate the sick person in a separate room, and, if possible, give them their own bathroom. It's best if the room has good airflow, for instance from an air conditioner or an open window, according to the CDC

Along with their own room, patients should have their own dishes and cups, eating utensils, towels and bedding. After each use, these items should be washed thoroughly. Here's what the CDC recommends for laundry:

  • Immediately remove and wash clothes or bedding with 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 (with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer) immediately after removing your gloves.
  • Normal laundry detergent should do the trick. Put the dryer on the highest temperature recommended on the clothing label.

Good hygiene

Now is the time to practice good hygiene. Caregivers should avoid touching their face with unwashed hands. Wash your hands religiously, scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. An alcohol-based sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol works, too. 

Face masks can hinder the spread of COVID-19. The patient should wear a face mask when they're in the same room as other people. However, if the ill person is having trouble breathing, then the caregiver should be the one to wear the face mask, the CDC said.

If the caregiver has to clean up after the ill person — for instance, if they have to be in contact with the patient's blood, poop, saliva, sputum, vomit or pee — they should wear a disposable face mask and gloves. After leaving the patient's room, the caregiver should first remove and toss the gloves, then immediately wash their hands. Second, the caregiver should remove and throw away the face mask, then wash their hands again.

Remember to clean all high-touch surfaces, such as door knobs and bathroom fixtures, with a household cleaning spray or wipe EVERY DAY. 

Monitor the patient

While most cases are mild, others can become complicated, with the patient developing severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, for example. 

If the patient develops serious symptoms, such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion or bluish lips or face, they should seek immediate medical attention, the CDC says. 

There isn't a cure for COVID-19, but hospitals can provide supportive care for complications, including supplemental oxygen and advanced organ support for respiratory failure, the CDC said.

Palliative care and recovery

To help the patient recover, make sure they get plenty of rest and fluids. If the person is running a temperature, they can take a fever reducer, such as Tylenol or Aspirin. (There have been questions about whether patients can take ibuprofen, but the jury is still out, as there's not enough information to make a recommendation.)

The patient can stop self-isolation after their fever has been gone for at least 72 hours without the help of medication; if the other symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath, have improved; and when at least seven days have passed since the first symptoms began, the CDC reported

Or, the person can get a COVID-19 test, to see if they're still testing negative. 

To get a better idea of a caregiver's experience with COVID-19, read this essay by Jessica Lustig, New York Times Magazine deputy editor, who detailed the journey of caring for her husband who caught the new coronavirus.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.