December 2, 2021

You Have COVID-19 — Now What Happens?

What to expect when you’re treated for or hospitalized with COVID-19

A person coughing and holding their chest

With the number of cases increasing each day, you might be asking yourself, what actually happens if you’re diagnosed with the coronavirus (COVID-19). Or maybe you’re wondering what happens to you if you think you might have it.


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Naturally, people are curious when something is unfamiliar. Will you need to be hospitalized? Will you need a ventilator? Or will it feel like your typical flu?

“First and foremost, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, meaning it invades and attacks your respiratory system,” says family medicine specialist Neha Vyas, MD. “So protecting that system — most importantly your lungs — is not only your body’s main priority, but also your doctor’s main priority.”

According to one report, approximately 80% of those with COVID-19 end up having a mild response — and most of these cases only last about two weeks. But the same report also says that over 13% of those with the virus will have a severe response, which can last several weeks or even months.

Steps to take after you test positive

When you’re infected with COVID-19, your body might respond in one of two different ways.

You’ll have a mild-to-moderate reaction

You might feel pretty crummy, think: dry cough, fever, fatigue, sore throat, diarrhea or a new loss of taste and smell. It’s critically important to stay home during this time and away from other people. (It’s also vital to note: Sometimes a person won’t experience any symptoms, but they can still have the virus. This is yet another reason that social distancing is necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19.) In this case, you’ll need to isolate at home for 14 days and special treatment isn’t required in most cases.

What to do if you’re fully vaccinated

If you’re fully vaccinated and have come in contact with someone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you will need to quarantine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends getting tested five to seven days after the exposure and wearing a mask indoors in public for 14 days or until you get a negative test result.

You’ll have a severe reaction

This can include shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, coughing up thick mucus, loss of appetite, chills, sweating and new loss of taste and smell. A severe reaction to COVID-19 can land you in intensive care and can lead to pneumonia, respiratory failure, sepsis and, at worst, death. According to the World Health Organization, about 1 in 5 people will have a severe reaction. Older adults and those with chronic or underlying conditions (like diabetes or lung or heart disease) are more likely to have this type of reaction.


What happens if you’re hospitalized for COVID-19?

If you were diagnosed with COVID-19 or believe you were exposed to it, seek urgent medical attention if have difficulty breathing or you’re not getting better. Calling your healthcare provider and putting on a face mask before you go to any medical facility is also recommended. If you need to call 911, notify dispatch that you have COVID-19 or have possibly been exposed to it. If possible, put on a face mask before the emergency team arrives.

Once at the hospital, here’s what you can expect:

  • You’ll be admitted and monitored for escalating conditions, particularly when it comes to your breathing and lungs.
  • You could be given oxygen to help you breathe better.
  • You might be given an epinephrine injection, an albuterol inhalation or similar medications. These drugs can help relax muscles in the airways and increase airflow to the lungs.
  • Your medical team will continue to watch for signs of secondary infection since COVID-19 compromises the immune system and can cause hyperinflammation throughout the body.
  • If damage to your lungs continues, you might develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which means that you could go into respiratory failure. At this point, you would require a medical ventilator to breathe.
  • If the virus continues to spread throughout your body, it may cause sepsis. Sepsis can be triggered by the body’s response to an infection and can be fatal. It’s treated by quick diagnosis and with prompt treatment options like antibiotics, IV fluids and other appropriate supportive care.
  • The FDA also granted an emergency use authorization for the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir for patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 and require minimal supplemental oxygen. In cases where increasing amounts of supplemental oxygen are needed, patients may be given dexamethasone, baricitinib, tocilizumab by IV or sarilumab by IV.

Most times, if you’re hospitalized for COVID-19, you’ll stay for several weeks until you have recovered and are stable enough to go home.

How can you treat COVID-19 symptoms at home?

“Most people with mild symptoms of COVID-19 — about 80% — can and should recover at home,” says Dr. Vyas. “Mild-to-moderate cases of the virus can be managed through over-the-counter medications, drinking plenty of fluids and rest.”

Which pain relievers are safe to take for COVID-19?

Pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) can relieve minor aches and pains. Cough suppressants or expectorants may also be recommended, but it’s best to get specific advice from your healthcare provider.

“COVID-19 can range from very mild to very serious, but it’s important for people to understand that not all cases require urgent medical attention,” says Dr. Vyas. “Most people will be able to monitor their symptoms and manage it through OTC medications at home. While anyone can get COVID-19, those who are most at-risk and may need hospitalization for medical support are the elderly and those with other underlying chronic conditions.”

Prevention starts with protection

While a lot of things have changed throughout the pandemic, the methods for protecting ourselves have remained the same. To protect yourself, your family and your community, here’s what you can do:


Get vaccinated

Millions of vaccine doses have been safely provided in the U.S. The available vaccines met the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality needed to support approval or authorization of a vaccine. Serious safety problems have been rare and under FDA requirements, each of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines was studied for at least two months (eight weeks) after the final dose. So far, no long-term side effects have been detected.

Vaccination can protect you from getting very sick and significantly reduce your chances of hospitalization or even death.

Wear a mask

If you’re not vaccinated, wear a mask in public spaces. This also goes for those who are immunocompromised and fully vaccinated because of how infectious the Delta variant is. In most cases, you don’t need to wear a mask outside unless you’re unable to avoid close contact with others.

Wash your hands

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you have been in a public place or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

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