Right now, there is no cure for the coronavirus. And although doctors and researchers are making progress on different ways to treat the illness, much remains uncertain.
Many common symptoms continue to be identified, and families staying at home can take steps now to prepare in case someone falls ill, to best monitor one’s health and to alleviate symptoms. Many people who get coronavirus feel lousy, but they get better in a few weeks.
Make sure, to start, that you have at least a 30-day supply of prescription medications if you take them, and check that you have a well-stocked first-aid kit, too.
To get a sense of what else you should — and should not — have in your medicine cabinet at this time, we talked to doctors and pharmacists across the country. Here is the medicine and equipment they recommend.
Medicine Cabinet or Hall Closet?
Even before you head to the pharmacy, make sure your medications and equipment can be stored safely.
“A medicine cabinet in a bathroom that gets steamy from a bath or shower isn’t an ideal place,” said Dr. Ilisa Bernstein, the senior vice president of pharmacy practice and government affairs at the American Pharmacists Association. “The humidity could impact the ingredients over time.”
A hallway linen closet is better, she said. That doesn’t mean you need to throw out old medications, but it’s good to know for the future. Wherever you keep them, make sure the bottles are away from children.
Fever is one of the most prominent symptoms of the coronavirus.
If you have a thermometer in your house already, make sure you have extra batteries. If you have two, check your temperature on both: they are not infallible. Between uses, disinfect the thermometer with alcohol or peroxide.
If you are buying a thermometer, oral readers are the best, said Dr. Stacey Curtis, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy. An ear thermometer needs to be placed properly for accuracy, and a forehead thermometer might not get a good reading if the patient is sweating, she said.
Although it can be comforting to know the precise number, it will be obvious if you have a fever, said Dr. Stephen Eckel, a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy. You will be cold and shivery, and will often sweat or be flushed. If you are exceptionally weak, dizzy or hallucinating, call your doctor. Consult with them before you go to the hospital.
Some patients develop a pneumonia that can cause oxygen levels to drop before they experience severe symptoms. A pulse oximeter is a hand-held, clip-like device that measures the oxygen level of your blood stream. Some clip onto fingertips or earlobes. Normal readings usually range from 95 to 100 percent. A blood-oxygen level under 90 is considered low.
There have been shortages of pulse oximeters, too. If you can’t find one right away, you can probably find one that can be delivered in a few weeks or a month.
If you get sick and don’t have a home pulse oximeter, don’t panic. Although it can be comforting to put a number to a symptom, it is not always necessary, said Dr. Albert Rizzo, the chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.
“I hate to have my patients fixate on numbers like this,” he said. “I think it’s more important that you listen to what your body is telling you.”
If you are struggling to draw a full breath, call your doctor and communicate concrete symptoms: I’m more short of breath now than I was yesterday. I can’t climb the stairs. I’m coughing more.
“I’m not saying don’t buy it, but it’s not the thing I’d have at the top of my list when it’s hard to get,” Dr. Rizzo said of pulse oximeters. “If you felt short of breath enough that you want to get a pulse ox, call your doctor.”
Most people do fine without them. You also can also borrow one from a friend (they are easily sanitized) or talk to your doctor about getting your oxygen levels checked at an urgent care center.
Fever Reducers and Painkillers
Both acetaminophen and ibuprofen will reduce a fever, and can be used to treat the uncomfortable symptoms of fever: headache, aches and chills.
Pharmacists caution against taking too much acetaminophen, which can cause severe liver damage. And you should be aware that many over-the-counter cough medications also contain acetaminophen. The total amount of acetaminophen taken in pain relievers and cold medications should not exceed 3,000 milligrams a day. Additionally, alcohol should not be consumed when taking acetaminophen.
Patients with underlying conditions should check before taking any medication. Also, children and adults have different dosages. Be sure to read the label before giving children medication.
Some doctors caution against reducing a fever at all. The immune system works better when the body’s temperature is higher, and dozens of studies have shown fever to be beneficial in fighting infections.
“When you treat with fever-reducing medicines, as has been shown again and again and again, you decrease the body’s ability to make antibodies,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
There are other things that might alleviate some symptoms. Throat lozenges will soothe an aching throat, which can come from coughing. Be sure children do not choke on them. If you are worried, honey works, too (though it is not recommended for children under the age of two).
The coronavirus can lead to nausea or diarrhea. Although it can be uncomfortable, it might be best to let whatever gastrointestinal distress happen, because it is a way your body gets rid of infection. “We are not recommending anyone take anything to stop the diarrhea,” said Dr. Curtis of the University of Florida. “We want them to go ahead and have diarrhea.”
But diarrhea can cause dehydration, so she recommends getting an electrolyte-replenisher like Pedialyte to replace minerals. Regular sports drinks are sugary, and have less of an impact.
Cold medicines are largely ineffective, but antihistamines can help if you have seasonal allergies.
The most important thing, if you are feeling sick, is to communicate with a doctor or pharmacist. Although it may take time to wait in the line, a call to a pharmacist is free. He or she can help you talk through your concerns, and offer advice.
Tara Parker Pope contributed reporting.