From what to do if you start having symptoms, the differences between COVID-19 tests, what to do if you test positive, to when you can re-enter society safely, this is your complete guide to care.
No matter how cautious you are, COVID-19 is exceptionally good at breaking down our immune defenses. To help us learn more about what to do if you’re experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19, we talked to Dr. John Zurlo, Chair of the Jefferson COVID-19 Task Force and Division Director of Infectious Diseases at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Step One: Get Tested
If you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as sore throat, fever, chills or loss of taste and smell, it is important that you quarantine and get tested right away. “COVID-19 symptoms can appear similar to those of the common cold. If you’re experiencing symptoms, a viral test proves if you have the illness, which will dictate your next steps,” says Dr. Zurlo.
If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and are unvaccinated, immediately quarantine and monitor yourself for symptoms. For those who have been exposed but are fully vaccinated, you do not need to quarantine, but you should still monitor yourself for symptoms and wear a mask around those outside of your household. Regardless of vaccination status, you should consider getting a viral test three to five days after exposure but should do so at any time that you develop COVID-19 symptoms.
There are two basic types of viral tests: molecular lab tests (PCR/NAAT) which look for genetic fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19, and rapid-result antigen tests, which just look for pieces of the virus. PCR tests are typically slightly more accurate than rapid-result tests but take longer to complete. It is best to get whichever test is most readily available. You should consult your primary care physician if you have questions or concerns about testing.
Step Two: Assess the Test Results
A negative test result means that you do not have COVID-19 but if you continue to have symptoms you should consider retesting. If you’re positive, you need to isolate yourself away from others as much as possible for 10 days. If you need to leave your home for any reason, such as grocery shopping or a doctor’s appointment, be sure to wear a mask and stay six feet away from others.
“If you test positive for COVID-19, you should try your best to avoid spreading the virus to anyone else in your household. This means isolating as much as possible and wearing a mask inside your home around others. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can still infect those around you,” says Dr. Zurlo.
Step Three: Monitor Your Symptoms
Not everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 needs to be seen by their primary care physician. For those who are young and healthy and have mild symptoms, the best plan of action is to isolate and monitor how you’re feeling. While there are no at-home treatments to cure COVID-19, Dr. Zurlo recommends listening to what your body needs. “Really, it’s a matter of what makes you feel better,” says Dr. Zurlo. You can treat COVID-19 symptoms like any other virus—get plenty of rest, drink water, nourish yourself with healthy foods and take over-the-counter pain medicine to relieve discomfort. In short, if you are young, healthy and not terribly sick, stay home. Don’t spread the virus,” says Dr. Zurlo.
“If you are unvaccinated or have underlying medical conditions, like COPD or diabetes, you should get seen and evaluated by your primary care physician,” said Dr. Zurlo. “There are monoclonal antibody infusions that can reduce the chances of severe illness if given early. A turning point between monitoring symptoms at home and seeking medical care is if you become sicker, particularly if you become short of breath.
Step Four: Re-enter Society
The majority of people who test positive for COVID-19 do not need to get retested at the end of their isolation since the tests may remain positive long after the illness has ended. However, be sure to consult your primary care provider before you return to seeing friends and family.
“People with a lab-confirmed COVID-19 test can stop isolating 10 days after their symptoms began or 24 hours after their last fever,” says Dr. Zurlo. For those who tested positive for the virus but did not have symptoms, it is safe to be around others 10 days after their first positive COVID-19 test.
Step Five: Continue to Protect Yourself and Others
Having COVD-19 does not necessarily mean that you’re protected from contracting the virus again in the future. Even if you’ve recovered from the virus, it is still important to get vaccinated to protect yourself and those around you. “The COVID-19 vaccines available are the most effective protection we have against the virus. Not only have they been proven to reduce COVID-19 symptoms, but also prevent hospitalization and death,” says Dr. Zurlo.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19, even after you’ve recovered, also means continuing to wear masks, staying socially distant from those outside your household and washing your hands frequently. “As COVID-19 variant cases continue to spread, we need to do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones. There is no such thing as being too careful,” says Dr. Zurlo.