This article was originally published on March 25, 2020. It was updated on December 22, 2020 to reflect new information about this rapidly evolving situation.
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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.
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.
When you’re infected with coronavirus, your body has two options:
- You’ll have a mild-to-moderate reaction requiring isolation for 10 days, usually at home, and it will not require any special treatment. You might feel pretty crummy, think: dry cough, fever, fatigue, sore throat, diarrhea or a new loss of taste and smell. Most people will respond to the virus with this type of reaction, BUT it’s critically important that during this time you stay home and away from other people. (It’s also vital to note: Sometimes a person won’t experience any symptoms, but still has the virus. This is yet another reason that social distancing is necessary to slow down the spread of COVID-19.)
- You’ll have a severe reaction, which 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.
How is coronavirus treated at home?
“Most people with 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.”
Pain relievers for coronavirus
What drugs might you need? 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.
What happens if you’re hospitalized for COVID-19?
If you were diagnosed with COVID-19 or believe you have it, seek urgent medical attention if your illness is worsening or if you have difficulty breathing. It’s also recommended to call your healthcare provider and put on a face mask before you go to any medical facility. If you need to call 911, notify dispatch that you have COVID-19 or believe you might. 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.
- Medical staff will continue to watch you for signs of secondary infection as 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 is still running wild throughout your body, it may cause you to go into sepsis. Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by the body’s response to an infection, which is treated by quick diagnosis and prompt treatment. This can include antibiotics, an IV 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. It’s possible that you may receive this drug along with the rest of your care.
Most times if you’re hospitalized for COVID-19, you’ll stay for several weeks until you have recovered and are discharged home.
“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.”