What to Do If You (or a Loved One) Might Have Covid-19

Stay calm. Here's our guide to what symptoms you should look out for, and how to respond if you've been exposed.
Photograph: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

Have you lost your sense of smell? Convinced that your sore throat is something more than seasonal allergies? Do you think you or someone you know may have contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus? Stay calm. Here's our guide on what to do next.

Need more info on what's going on with regards to the disease? Be sure to check out our full coverage of all things Covid-19, especially our Coronavirus FAQ. Go to the CDC's website to learn any new information coming from the Centers for Disease Control.

Updated July 31: We've added the CDC's updated guidance on symptoms, as well as new details on when to stop self-isolation and who should get certain Covid-19 tests. The CDC has recently added nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea to the list of symptoms, while the World Health Organization has listed these as possible symptoms for the past couple of months.

Symptoms of Covid-19

The first thing you should do is be sure your symptoms match what we know about Covid-19. Many of these symptoms are commonly associated with seasonal colds and the regular flu. Although we're in between flu seasons right now, that doesn't rule out your symptoms being the common cold or influenza. There are also plenty of high-pollen days at the end of summer, so you could be having problems with allergies.

While many who are infected may exhibit few to no symptoms (especially children), here are the major symptoms of Covid-19, according to the CDC.

Nearly All Cases Involve at Least One of the Following
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published on July 16, 2020, reported that 96 percent of the 164 study participants with lab-confirmed cases of Covid-19 reported experiencing at least one of those symptoms, and 45 percent experienced all three.

More-Common Symptoms
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Sore throat
  • New loss in taste or smell (Some report this odd symptom as one of the first indicators of the disease.)

Symptoms typically appear within 14 days after exposure, though they can appear as soon as two days after exposure.

Less-Common Symptoms
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • A rash on the skin or discoloration of the fingers or toes
  • Headache
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • (The WHO lists a few symptoms that the CDC doesn't.)

For more help, try using Apple's Covid-19 diagnosis tool, an online questionnaire the company developed in coordination with the CDC, the White House, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The CDC also has a Coronavirus Self-Checker tool you can use. These tools will recommend a course of action based on your circumstances. There is also an Alexa skill from New York University that can answer basic questions about Covid-19.

Important Tips for Everyone, Sick or Well
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We're in the middle of a pandemic, so it's a good idea to protect yourself. It's also possible you could have Covid-19 already and not show symptoms yet. In any case, follow these basic rules, outlined by the CDC and White House.

  • Wash your hands and cover your face when coughing: This probably goes without saying, but please stay extra vigilant about personal hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The rule was created because it typically takes 20 seconds to adequately scrub every surface of your hands and fingers. So wash up between the webs of your fingers and thumbs, your fingertips, both palms, and the backs of your hands. The CDC has a guide on how you should be doing it. Hand sanitizer is OK to use if you're unable to wash your hands, and you can even make your own, if you can find the ingredients, but it's not as effective as soap and water. Make sure to avoid the growing number of hand sanitizers containing toxic ingredients.

  • Don't touch your face: Generally avoid touching your face as much unless you just washed your hands.

  • Stay at home: If your job allows it, stay at home. Your state or city may still have a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order in effect. Check our state-by-state guide to learn more. The New York Times also has a guide to these orders. Only leave the house for essential items, like groceries, or to engage in outdoor activities where you can maintain your distance from others.

  • Stay six feet from others and avoid groups: Try to stay away from people when out and about, and really avoid spaces with groups of people to avoid spreading or catching the disease.

  • Wear a cloth face mask outside the house: The CDC now recommends everyone wear cloth face coverings when traveling out in public. Read our How to Make a CDC-Approved Cloth Face Mask (and Rules to Follow) guide to learn the benefit of a mask and how you should wear it. Kids under 2 years old should not wear a mask, nor should anyone who has difficulty breathing or taking it off. Do not buy or hoard medical grade masks, like N95 masks. Those masks are needed by health care professionals, so don't snag them for yourself.

  • Clean your house: Make sure that all high-touch surfaces like door knobs, faucet handles, and the refrigerator door handle are cleaned daily. (Here's our Covid-19 cleaning guide). If you don't have disinfectant, soap and warm water (plus a little elbow grease!) will do.

If You Have Symptoms or Were Exposed

If you believe you were directly exposed to the coronavirus or have symptoms of the disease, follow these guidelines:

  • Stay calm, rest, hydrate: For the vast majority of those who get Covid-19, you can treat it like a normal cold for flu. Sleep as much as you can, rest often, stay hydrated, and eat well. It's OK to use over-the-counter pain relievers, as long as you follow the directions. Based on the current information available, the CDC has not seen evidence that NSAID pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, worsen Covid-19 symptoms, and despite early rumors, the WHO does not recommend against ibuprofen.

  • Stay home: Avoid public transportation, ride-shares, and taxis. Even if you're not confirmed to be Covid-19 positive, you could still be carrying the virus unknowingly. It's important not to potentially spread it to areas where many other people will have close contact with you, surfaces you touch, and air you breathe.

  • Isolate yourself: If you don't live alone, try to stay away from others as much as possible for the next 10 days. Last week, the CDC lowered the recommended isolation period down to 10 days from the previous 14, since it found that about 88 percent of even severe Covid-19 patients became noncontagious after 10 days. Stay in a specific "sick room," away from others if possible, and try to use your own bathroom.

  • Wear a cloth face mask inside the house too: If you're sick, you should also wear a mask when you are in the same room with others in your own home, or outside your quarantined room. A mask may help others avoid catching the disease from you. Again, read our How to Make a CDC-Approved Cloth Face Mask (and Rules to Follow) guide to learn more. Kids under 2 years old should not wear a mask, nor should anyone who has difficulty breathing or taking a mask off. Again, please don't use N95 masks. Those are needed by health care workers.

  • Don't share: Avoid sharing personal items like dishes, cups, utensils, towels, and bedding. When you do use these items, wash them immediately afterward. Try to use a separate bathroom.

  • Have someone check up on you: Make sure that someone you know and trust is checking in on you daily. Stay in touch with your medical professional via videoconference, phone, text, or email.

  • Get help if you have kids: If you're sick and still trying to care for your kids, this guide has some advice from health professionals.

When to Go to a Doctor

Don't go to the doctor unless you need to do so. Ask yourself: Would I normally go to the hospital or doctor with these symptoms? If the answer is no, you should likely stay home and continue monitoring your symptoms.


If you're experiencing constant chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing, severe dizziness, slurred speech, confusion, an inability to wake up or stay awake, or have bluish lips or face, call 911 or get immediate medical attention. The diagnosis tool made by Apple and the CDC may be useful to check as your symptoms change. If you're generally too sick to eat, drink, or use the toilet, those are also signs to call your doctor or seek medical help.

If you aren't experiencing severe symptoms that warrant an emergency, the CDC recommends you stay in touch with your doctor, and call before leaving home to get medical care. Many less serious health visits are being done via Zoom or over the phone, and a call gives them time to plan for your arrival, or discuss specific precautions you should take.

If you have underlying health conditions like asthma, lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or a compromised immune system, consider talking to a health professional before your symptoms get too bad (via phone or email). If you have a doctor who specializes in one of these conditions, it's good to work out a plan with them.

Remember, fellow hypochondriacs: The vast majority of people who contract Covid-19 won't need medical attention, and most who do need medical help will be OK.

Getting Tested
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There are two distinct tests for Covid-19, and both are becoming more widely available.

Viral tests look for whether you have an active coronavirus infection. The CDC considers it appropriate to get a viral test if you have signs or symptoms consistent with Covid-19, or if you have no signs or symptoms but have had contact with a person with a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19. You can expect results within a few days; isolate yourself during that time until the results come in.

Antibody tests are often quicker to administer but may not be as effective or as accurate as viral tests. They look for whether you've been exposed to the virus in the past and are carrying the antibodies in your blood that—scientists suspect—provide some degree of resistance to subsequent reinfection, although medical researchers are still figuring out how much.

There's no nationally standardized place to go to get tested. Instead, you'll have to consult your state or local health department to see when, where, and if tests are available to you. WhileAtHome.org has a good state-level directory of numbers and websites. Castlight has created a nationwide search tool for finding local testing sites. Tests are being given in a diverse range of locations, such as community centers, urgent care centers, and hospitals. Some even have drive-through testing where you don't have to get out of your car.


Certain states have coordinated their local responses into statewide directories, so search the official websites for your state, county, and city for information, as well. By now, most big health insurance companies have also created search tools for their members to find test sites, so if you're lucky enough to have health insurance, check there, too. If you're unable to locate nearby testing, contact your physician and ask if they're familiar with the AACC testing directory. It's only for providers and not patients, but it could help them point you to place where you can get tested.

To learn more read WIRED's Everything You Need to Know about Covid-19 Testing guide.

When to Stop Self-Isolating

Think you've recovered from Covid-19? Here's how to know when it's safe to stop self-isolation. Remember, all of the below bullet points must be true before you leave isolation, according to the CDC. And even then, it's wise to still stay at home if possible.

If you have NOT taken a test to see if you're Covid-19 positive:

  • No fever: You should be fever free for at least 72 hours (three full days), without using a medicine that reduces fevers.

  • No other symptoms: Any coughing or shortness of breath have abated. You have no other issues.

  • And it's been at least 10 days: Even if symptoms have subsided, it need to be at least 10 days since they first appeared before you can stop self-isolating.

If you have tested Covid-19 positive:

  • No fever: If you no longer have a fever, without using a medicine that reduces fever.

  • Other symptoms have improved: Your other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, have improved a lot.

  • You test negative twice: You receive two diagnostic tests that result in a negative result, at least 24 hours apart.

What to Do While You're Staying Home
Photograph: Nintendo

We have an extensive gear and tips guide to get through all this alone time. It has necessary supplies you need and some other stuff that may improve your health or mental state. From our favorite TV shows to video games, there are a ton of things you can do to take your mind off of things during this stressful time.

If you have the means, also consider supporting the nonprofits that are helping to fight the pandemic.

More From WIRED on Covid-19