The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been spreading across America, where it’s caused 163,676 cases and 3,073 deaths so far. And because the respiratory illness is very contagious, it's possible that someone in your household could contract it.
“From what is known about this virus so far, it likely spreads through respiratory droplets,” from coughing or sneezing, says Kristopher Richardson, an NCCPA-certified emergency medicine physician assistant. Nearby people could inhale these infected droplets. People could also get COVID-19 by coming in contact with a contaminated surface (such as doorknob or handrail), and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.
If a family member is infected with the coronavirus, they probably won’t know right away. That’s because symptoms usually show up between two to 14 days after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The most common symptoms tend to be fever, cough, and shortness of breath—although mild cold-like symptoms (sore throat, runny noses, body aches) and digestive issues (vomiting and diarrhea) have also been reported. Some people are asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate; it affects people of all ages, genders, races, and backgrounds. But certain individuals tend to be impacted more severely; this includes the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, says Richardson.
So what should you do if a parent, child, or other member of the family develops coronavirus symptoms? We spoke with experts to find out.
My Family Member Has Symptoms of the Coronavirus—Now What?
Say someone in your household wakes up with a cough, fever, and runny nose. It’s possible they're suffering from allergies, seasonal influenza, or the common cold—but they might also have COVID-19. The risk increases if you live in an area with active spread, or if the person has had close contact with an infected individual. Here’s what to do.
STEP 1: Isolate the individual. “The sooner that you can isolate someone with symptoms, the better. That’s because most of the transmission is through close contact,” says Gwen Nichols, M.D., chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).
STEP 2. Contact your doctor. “Unless it is a true emergency, it's critical to not take a sick person to an urgent care or the emergency department during this outbreak,” says Jim Warren, M.D., a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s Hospital in California. If you show up at a hospital unannounced, you risk exposing others to the coronavirus. Instead, you should call your doctor, who will guide you on a course of action.
STEP 3. Get tested, if applicable. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may advise a coronavirus test. But since these tests are limited, not everyone with symptoms will receive one. “It’s been recommended from the health departments to only test high-risk patients at this time,” says Marshneil Chavan, M.D., a pediatrician with CHOC Children’s Hospital. "High-risk patients" include those over 65 years old, as well as anyone with a compromised immune system. If you’re showing COVID-19 symptoms but are unable to get tested, your doctor might recommend self-isolation for 14 days.
How to Limit COVID-19 Spread in a Household
Maybe someone in your household tested positive for the coronavirus. Or perhaps you’re unable to get tested, but your doctor recommended 14 days of self-isolation. Here’s how to prevent spreading COVID-19 to other members of your household.
Practice social distancing in the house.
“Try to give the sick family member an area where they can recover without exposing others to the illness. This might include providing them their own bedroom as well as a designated bathroom separate from the rest of the family,” recommends Linda Lee, M.D., chief medical affairs and science officer at UV Angel. Respiratory droplets can spread up to six feet, according to the CDC, so infected people should stay this far away from everyone else.
Designate a contact person.
You should choose one healthy family member who is not in a high-risk group (over age 65 or with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and heart disease) to be the contact person for the sick family member, suggests Aimee Ferraro, M.D., senior core faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Public Health program. "They should wear a face mask and gloves during any interaction and clean their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water immediately afterwards."
Wash your hands often.
“Whenever you think you may have come in contact with respiratory droplets (either on a surface or through a person), wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds,” says Richardson. This is especially important before eating or touching your nose, eyes, or mouth. Also make sure to clean up after using the bathroom, since the coronavirus might spread through fecal matter, adds Richardson.
If you’re unable to wash your hands with soap and water, then hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol are fairly effective. “But nothing can truly substitute for proper hand-washing,” says Richardson.
Disinfect common areas.
According to a March 2020 study from National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University scientists, the coronavirus might last for up to three hours in the air, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and two to three days on stainless steel and plastic. That’s why you should thoroughly clean everything the sick person might have touched or coughed on, which might include "tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sink," according to Dr. Ferraro. Check out this list of cleaning products approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use against the coronavirus.
“While waiting for testing, people with possible infections should eat separately from family,” says Dr. Nichols. “Have your meal left outside the door so nobody is within six feet of you. The person who clears the plate should also wear gloves, and they need to do vigorous hand-washing.”
Rely on face masks.
“Because the coronavirus spreads through droplets, the person with symptoms should wear a mask,” suggests Dr. Nichols. The mask will prevent these droplets from spreading to others. Caregivers may also wear a mask when they're within six feet of the infected person.
Keep in mind, however, that “personal protective equipment is only recommended for personnel who are in close contact or caring for a patient with COVID-19,” says Dr. Warren. The CDC says the general population should avoid wearing masks, especially since there's a shortage among health care workers.
Let others handle essential tasks in public.
Those with confirmed or suspected coronavirus shouldn’t go out in public to prevent spreading the disease. Instead, designate a healthy family member to shop for groceries, pick up prescriptions, and complete other essential tasks. "But the entire family should self-isolate as much as possible for at least 14 days following onset of symptoms of the sick family member." says Dr. Ferraro. "That means only going outside for essential items like groceries and medicine and avoiding social gatherings, restaurants, sports, work, and school."
Teach cleanliness to your kids.
If you live with children, teach them proper hygiene methods, such as covering their mouth when they cough and washing their hands often.
Boost your immune system.
Besides maintaining distance from the infected person, other members of the household should improve their overall well-being. “The best way to keep your immune system healthy is to eat a balanced diet, exercise, and get plenty of sleep,” says Richardson.
Give yourself a break.
Dr. Nichols notes that certain people may have a difficult time isolating themselves from their family—including single parents of young children. If you’re a single parent with suspected coronavirus, you should practice the prevention methods listed above (wearing a mask, washing your hands often, etc.) to prevent spreading COVID-19. At the end of the day, all of us can only do the best we can.