What To Do When a Family Member Has COVID-19

Do you think someone in your household has COVID-19? Here's how to handle the situation—and how to prevent other family members from getting sick too.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Parents.com's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

Life has profoundly changed for many families since we first heard of the coronavirus in early 2020. Back then, things like social distancing, masking, and sanitizing were not on our radar. Now we all know how contagious a respiratory illness can be, and we need to be prepared if someone in our household gets sick. Here's what to do if a family member tests positive for COVID-19.

How Does Someone Get the Coronavirus?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you're most likely to contract the virus when you're within three to six feet of someone who has it, and they breathe, cough, sneeze, or speak, sending respiratory droplets in your direction. You then inhale these droplets, or they land on exposed mucous membranes in your eyes, nose, or mouth. The disease can also be spread if you get the virus on your hands or touch a virus-covered surface (like a doorknob or handrail), and then come in contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth.

If you have COVID-19, you may not know right away. That's because symptoms usually show up two to 14 days after exposure. New coronavirus variants may create different symptoms, but they generally include cough, congestion, fatigue, runny nose, sore throat, headache, fever, and/or body aches; some people also develop skin rashes and digestive issues (vomiting and diarrhea). People who haven't been fully vaccinated tend to have more severe symptoms. Be aware that someone could also be an asymptomatic carrier of the disease.

woman sick in bed

COVID-19 doesn't discriminate; it affects people of all ages, genders, races, and backgrounds. But certain individuals are impacted more severely—namely older adults and those with compromised immune systems, says Kristopher Richardson, an NCCPA-certified emergency medicine specialist.

What should you do if a parent, child, or other member of the family develops symptoms? We spoke with the experts to find out.

My Family Member Has COVID-19 Symptoms—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 where the virus is rapidly spreading, 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. The CDC recommends that people diagnosed with COVID-19 isolate for at least five days; after that, if symptoms are absent or seem to be getting better, they should wear a mask for five more days to protect those in their immediate vicinity.

STEP 2: Contact your doctor for worrisome symptoms. "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 with Pomona Pediatrics in Pomona, California. If you show up at the hospital unannounced, you risk exposing others who are medically vulnerable to the virus. Always call your doctor first. Beyond that, it's fine to contact the ER if you are struggling to breathe, have major chest pain or other life-threatening symptoms—just let them know you have think that you might have COVID-19 first.

STEP 3: Get tested, if applicable. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may tell you to come in for a COVID-19 test. If you'd rather stay home, self-tests are another good option. Antigen tests come with easy-to-use nose swabs, take 15 minutes, can be found at a pharmacy, health clinic, or online, and should be free or reimbursed through private insurance. They do sometimes return false negatives, so if you feel unsure of the results, turn to a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test; you can also get these online or through a doctor. (Labcorp and Walgreens have recently been shipping PCR tests for free.)

How to Limit COVID-19 Spread in a Household

It might seem impossible when you're looking after children and live in close quarters with other family members, but there are ways to keep contagion at bay when someone's developed COVID-19. Here's how to do it.

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 with their own bedroom, as well as a designated bathroom separate from the rest of the family," says Linda Lee, DrPH, chief medical affairs and science officer at UV Angel. Respiratory droplets can spread up to six feet (and on rare occasions even farther when people are stuck in poorly ventilated spaces for a long time). Keep your distance from each other.

Designate a contact person.

Choose one healthy family member not in a high-risk group (that includes older adults and those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and heart disease) to be the contact person for the sick family member, suggests Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D, senior core faculty member for Walden University's public health program. The CDC recommends people wear a face mask and gloves if touching any blood, stool, or bodily fluids, and clean their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water afterward. The sick individual should also wear a mask, unless they are having trouble breathing or under age 2.

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 eyes, nose, and mouth. If you're unable to do that, use hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol. "But nothing can truly substitute for proper hand-washing," he adds.

Disinfect common areas.

According to a March 2020 study from the 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. New variants last even longer on plastic and skin. That's why you should thoroughly clean everything the sick person might have touched or coughed on, including "tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks," according to Dr. Ferraro. Check out these cleaning products that meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for use against the virus.

Eat separately

"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.

Let others handle essential tasks in public.

Those with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 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. Anyone in the household who is exposed to that person and remains unvaccinated or boosted should quarantine for at least five days, and wear a mask around others for five days after that. If you've been vaccinated and had a booster shot, wear a mask for 10 days (you don't need to quarantine unless you develop symptoms). Get tested on the fifth day of your exposure to the infected person, no matter your vaccination status.

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 the virus. At the end of the day, all of us can only do the best we can.

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