You took a coronavirus test and the results are in: You've got COVID-19. Whether the news confirms your suspicion or comes as a complete shock, a positive diagnosis can stir up a lot of questions. Mainly: What are you supposed to do now?
If you're sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home, except to get medical care. Separate yourself as much as possible from other people, and share the news with your close contacts who also may have been exposed to the virus.
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Assuming you're well enough to recover at home, the CDC recommends isolating for at least 10 days from symptom onset. Even then, you ought to be fever-free for at least 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medicines and see improvement in other symptoms you may have before it's safe for you to be around other people again.
If you must be around people and pets, the CDC advises wearing a mask, even at home.
Being symptom-free is not a free pass. Even if you are asymptomatic, you still need to isolate for 10 days from the day you tested positive, per CDC guidelines. And if you go on to develop symptoms during that period of time, the clock starts again: you should isolate for 10 days from the day of symptom onset.
That's the gist in a nutshell, but you may have more specific questions about what you should and shouldn't do when you test positive. So we asked doctors who care for coronavirus patients about navigating life after a COVID-19 diagnosis and next steps to keep yourself and others safe.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
How Do I Get My Test Results?
How you hear about your COVID-19 test results will depend on the type of test you took and where you were tested.
If you had a "point of care" test through a doctor's office, hospital or pharmacy, you can expect results on the spot in a matter of minutes, doctors say. However, if your sample was sent off to a lab for processing, it will likely take several days to get results back. In that case, the ordering physician or nursing staff will likely be in touch.
Typically, drive-through or in-person nasal swab samples collected by, say, a local retail pharmacy must be sent to a diagnostic laboratory for processing. Some testing sites have patient portals that allow you to look up your results when they're available. CVS Health's MinuteClinic, for example, will send you an email or text message to let you know your results are available to view via a secure online platform.
At-home COVID testing kits allow you to collect your own saliva or nasal-mucus sample and mail it back for testing. You'll get your results online and may have an opportunity to schedule a telehealth consult.
Who Do I Tell?
It may feel awkward, but sharing the news of your COVID-positive diagnosis with the people in your orbit — your family, of course, but also your yoga buddies and the people who flank you at work — may help slow the spread of the infection. (You'd want to know if you were exposed to someone with COVID-19, wouldn't you?) The CDC defines close contact as anyone within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more, so use that as your guide.
If you test positive, you might get a call from a contract tracer with your local or state health department. That person's job is to come up with a list of the folks with whom you've been in close proximity so they can be notified and seek testing ASAP. Per the CDC, the tracer will not reveal, allude to or confirm your identity or any identifying information about you.
"Being forthright with anybody who is a part of a contract tracing program after you have tested positive is really critical," Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "If we don't do that, we're not establishing where the additional risk points in our community may be, and if you're not doing that, you're potentially responsible for the spread of COVID in your community."
What if My Family Is Symptom-Free?
SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, benefits from natural interactions among friends and family, says J.D. Zipkin, MD, chief medical officer of GoHealth Urgent Care in New York City. Any family members you may have exposed should be in quarantine for at least 10 days, per the CDC, even if they don't have symptoms.
Yes, it's inconvenient. But shrugging off a COVID exposure and living life uninterrupted may put others at risk.
"I get questions like, 'Oh, we were planning on going to a cabin with another family, but one of their family members currently has COVID. Can we just have that person stay home?'" Dr. Zipkin tells LIVESTRONG.com. "And I have to say, 'It's probably not a good idea,'" since that family has a known COVID exposure.
Should I Sleep Separately?
When you're COVID-positive, sharing a bed with someone else — or a bathroom, for that matter — isn't a great idea. Try to isolate within a separate and distinct space in your home, away from your household contacts, Dr. Gonsenhauser advises. Ideally, he says, you want to be able to shut the door, sleep and dine alone and use your own toilet.
For those living in close quarters, the CDC advises you separate from other family members as much as possible. If someone in your home is at higher risk like, say, a cancer patient on chemotherapy whose immune system is compromised, Dr. Zipkin suggests you consider alternative living arrangements.
"We may need to go so far as to say, 'Listen, you should not be staying in the house,' and they need to find a hotel that accepts people temporarily for this exact reason," he says.
Or, say, Grandma and Grandpa are living with you and they have chronic conditions. How can you minimize their exposure to the virus? "They can go maybe to my sister's house while I'm quarantining," says Daisy Dodd, MD, an infectious disease physician with Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Anaheim.
Can I Still Breastfeed My Baby?
There's no evidence, to date, that breast milk spreads the coronavirus to babies. That's why the CDC tells COVID-positive moms who choose to breastfeed that it's OK to start or continue breastfeeding as long as they wash up and mask up first.
Obviously, moms who are sick with COVID can't maintain social distancing with their little ones when they're breastfeeding, and that's why other mitigation measures are so important.
"They're wearing their mask, they're washing their hands really good and then they can go ahead and nurse their baby," Dr. Dodd, who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, tells LIVESTRONG.com
Can I Go Outside?
There's no harm being outdoors, per se, as long as you're not coming in contact with other people.
If you're walking the dog in a rural or suburban area where you're "not going to be physically bumping into people, that's perfectly fine," Dr. Zipkin says.
Keep in mind that you want to put as much distance between yourself and other people as possible — significantly more than the usual six feet of social distancing, he says. (Also, keep your hands off outdoor objects, like the mailbox, so you don't inadvertently transmit the virus to someone else, he says.)
Dr. Gonsenhauser points out that it can be hard to stay cooped up in an isolation area. "Getting outdoors, getting exercise, getting out and walking — all of those things are not only safe if you do them cautiously, but also recommended," he says.
What if I’m Not Getting Better?
While COVID-19 can cause severe, life-threatening illness, most people have only mild symptoms and are able to recover at home. Many times people are already feeling better by the time they get their test results back, and that's great news, Dr. Dodd says. Others may start out feeling well, but then their condition deteriorates.
"If you're not getting better, you're not turning around within the next day or two, you need to contact your primary doctor, and then we'll begin the cascade of what else needs to get done," she says.
Any concerning symptoms that may arise, such as trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, new confusion, bluish lips or face or inability to wake or stay awake, should be treated as a medical emergency, according to the CDC. That's the time to call 911 and let the operator know you're seeking help for someone who has or may have COVID-19.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What to Do If You Are Sick"
- CDC: "Isolate If You Are Sick"
- Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center: "Testing Trends Tool"
- CVS Health: "COVID-19 Testing"
- CDC: "COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease) Frequently Asked Questions"
- CDC: "When to Quarantine"
- CDC: "Households Living in Close Quarters"
- CDC: "Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and Caring for Newborns"
- CDC: "Symptoms of Coronavirus"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.