UNC Health Care
woman sneezing into tissue

You Have Coronavirus/COVID-19—Now What?

It’s on everyone’s minds: What happens if you or a loved one begins to experience symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019/COVID-19? It’s a scenario no one wants to face, but the reality is that you might.

If you suspect you may have a infection, what happens next hinges on your circumstances. First, call your healthcare provider; do not go to a clinic or hospital without calling ahead. This is important to prevent the spread of infection. If you are experiencing an emergency, such as difficulty breathing, call 911.

If you are experiencing shortness of breath, are elderly or have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or hypertension, you may be hospitalized and tested for the virus.

What to Do If You Get Sick

If you are not in a high-risk category or having trouble breathing, your doctor may tell you to stay home, rest and keep hydrated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are mildly ill with COVID-19 can recover at home. You also need to at home for seven days from the start of your symptoms and three days from your last fever, says UNC family medicine physician Dana Neutze, MD, PhD.

“Do not go out to the grocery store or meet up with friends,” Dr. Neutze says. Stay home unless you need medical care—and again, call ahead.

If you live alone, have food and medications delivered. Ask a friend or loved one to virtually check in on you regularly.

If you live with others, stay in a separate room and away from the other people in your household. If possible, use a separate bathroom. Do not share dishes, bowls, glasses, forks or other eating utensils. Also, do not share towels or bedding with anyone else in your home. Wash your clothes separately.

Pay attention to how you feel. Seek care immediately if you have trouble breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, or any sign of oxygen deprivation, such as bluish lips or face. “This suggests the infection is more severe,” Dr. Neutze says.

You can discontinue self-isolation after seven days if you have had no fever for at least 72 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medicine) and your other symptoms, such as shortness of breath or cough, have markedly improved. In all cases, follow the guidance of your local health department or health care provider.

It’s OK to Take Over-the-Counter Medications

Because many of the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to symptoms of a cold or the flu, Dr. Neutze says similar medications can be used to help alleviate symptoms, such as decongestants and acetaminophen (Tylenol and many other brand names).

“There is not much evidence that ibuprofen (Advil) cannot be taken with COVID, but some people cannot take it because of prior medical conditions such as a heart attack or being on blood thinners,” Dr. Neutze says.

How to Prepare Before You Get Sick

Before anyone in your family gets sick, make sure you have basic supplies at home. These include:

  • Thermometer to monitor fever
  • Fever-reducing medications, such as acetaminophen
  • 30- or 60-day supply of necessary prescription medicines
  • Soap and hand sanitizer
  • Tissues to cover coughs and sneezes
  • Cleaning supplies, including a disinfectant, and trash can liners

In addition to making sure you have adequate supplies, take steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. These include:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time. This is especially important after using the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, sneezing or coughing.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Use a tissue to cover a cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, such as your mobile devices, using a disinfecting spray or wipe.

During this pandemic, slowing down the rate and number of new infections is critical to not overwhelming hospitals. If everyone gets COVID-19 at once and ends up in the hospital at the same time, it could lead to large numbers of critically ill patients who cannot receive lifesaving care. Do what you can to help protect your loved ones and community: Stay home, practice physical distancing and follow your doctor’s directions if you get sick.


For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.