Social distancing can only do so much if your roomie or partner is sick with COVID-19. Experts weigh in how to look after someone with coronavirus—and still (at least try to!) stay healthy.

By Mallory Creveling
April 09, 2020
Grace Cary/Getty

While it might seem the guidelines are continually changing, one piece of coronavirus-related information continues to remain the same: The virus is primarily spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets (coughing or sneezing). Which is one of the reasons why you (and practically the entire world) are practicing social distancing. However, coronavirus can also be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface and then putting your hands in your mouth, nose, or eyes—yet another reason to avoid other people and shared spaces.

But what if you can't help but share a space with someone who has coronavirus? What if you live together?

The first thing to remember when someone in your home gets COVID-19: Help them out as much as you can, but also keep yourself healthy. "Frequently we forget this, but caregivers and medical professionals are no good to anyone if they don't take care of themselves, too," says Gavin Harris, M.D., infectious diseases physician and critical care medicine fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Make sure you take the proper steps to protect yourself from the virus—mainly, staying as separate as you can from the person and anything they touch—while also being a caregiver. (And don't forget about your mental health—whether you have OCD, recovering from an eating disorder, or simply feel lonely.)

For tips on how to look after someone with coronavirus while keeping yourself safe, follow these rules from the experts.

Separate yourself (and your items).

The best way to stop the spread of coronavirus at home is to limit contact with the sick person as much as possible, says Dr. Harris. This includes staying directly away from the person, but also anything they touch. If you can stay in a separate area of the house and use a different bedroom and bathroom, as well as household items, that's ideal.

"The place where the sick person is staying should be considered the 'hot zone.' Everything that is in the vicinity—everything that the sick person touches—needs to be considered contaminated," says Dr. Harris, who emphasizes that the goal is to be as separate as possible from the COVID-19-infected person. So, depending on your living situation, this could mean just sleeping on the couch if you usually share a bed or, if possible, avoiding areas near the 'hot zone.' But if you live, say, in a small apartment, just be sure to keep the door to the 'hot zone' shut as much as possible.

For shared spaces, make sure you have good ventilation, particularly an open window. "We have found that when people cough or sneeze, sometimes these droplets can linger in the air for several hours and thus could pose a risk to those who are healthy in the home," explains Dr. Harris.

Unlike at the hospital, your home likely doesn't have special rooms to filtrate the air and prevent the spread of germs to other parts of the building. So even though it's more difficult to keep the air safe at home, the best thing you can do is to make sure you have good circulation to reduce the risk of germs lingering. Also helpful? A fan, running on low near an open window for contaminated air to exit. (You might also want to invest in one of these best air purifiers for keeping your home virus-free.)

In addition to separate rooms, try to separate commonly shared items such as dishes, cups, utensils, towels, and bedding. "After the sick person uses these items, make sure to wash them thoroughly with hot water—heat can kill the virus," says Dr. Harris. It's smart to wear gloves as you clean dishes in the sink or even when put them in the dishwasher. Also, aim to keep the utensils used by the sick person separate from those that aren't contaminated, at least until they're thoroughly washed. (Wait, can steam kill viruses?)

If you do have to be around the sick person for a long period of time (say, if you have to share rooms), you should wash your clothes after interacting with them, says Amanda D. Castel, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Epidemiology at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

"Do not shake the clothes out," says Dr. Castel. "Use a pair of gloves and put them in a bag, such as a garbage bag, until you are ready to wash them." You don't have to separate them from other dirty clothes and if you use a garbage bag, you can toss it after using it. While there's no special method for washing clothes, towels, or bedding, use the hottest water temperature recommended by the label. "Wash them whenever you are ready and have the time to thoroughly dry them," she adds.

That said, if you can separate yourself—and other housemates—from the coronavirus patient, definitely do so.

Continue washing your hands and use protective gear.

Just as you've heard the past few months, it's even more important to wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20-seconds when you're looking after someone with coronavirus. Every time you encounter the sick person or touch something they used, disinfect your hands, says Dr. Harris. If the person with COVID-19 is healthy enough to wash their hands, he or she should be doing it as often as possible too! (Related: Does Vinegar Kill Viruses?)

Caregivers should also cover up with gloves and a face mask when they're in close contact with the sick person, according to Dr. Harris. This includes any time you need to bring them food or medicine. If possible, have the person with COVID-19 wear a mask, too. Then, every time you're done using the protective gear, toss it and immediately wash your hands. "Put all disposable gloves, face masks, and other items in a lined container before you dispose of them with other household waste," he says. If you have a homemade mask, try to wash it every day or make a few so you can wash them before re-wearing—this can lower your risk of touching the germs on the fabric. (BTW, here's how to DIY a face mask to protect against the coronavirus.)

Disinfect as frequently as possible.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of products that work to disinfectant around the house, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers tips on how to clean effectively. (And all this official advice about how to keep your home clean and healthy can be easily understood here.)

But the key for clearing out virus germs when you have someone infected in your house is being super diligent about wiping down any item that the sick person touches. This includes counters, tabletops, doorknobs, fixtures, light switches, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, headphones, and bedside tables—all spots you should clean at least every day, says Dr. Harris. And if you have to share a room or these common surfaces with the sick person, it's smart to disinfect a few times a day. Really, the more frequently you disinfect the better, and that goes for washing your hands, too. (Related: Can Steam Kill Viruses?)

"People often forget light switches, refrigerator handles and toilet bowl handles, as well as sink faucets and even soap dispensers and drawer knobs that may be opened, like on kitchen cabinets or dressers," he says. "The virus has not been shown to persist on cardboard for very long, but it would not hurt to wipe down the opening of containers, and cans too, before use." (Related: How to Safely Handle Your Groceries During the Coronavirus Pandemic)

While this can all seem overwhelming, it might help to make a checklist of things to clean every day, so you have an easy reminder of to-dos. Also, consider your daily activities and start going through the things you regularly touch to help you remember what to wipe down.

  • Daily Cleaning Checklist

"You turn on the light, you pull out a drawer or open a cabinet, you open the refrigerator door and pull out a container and place it on the counter," says Dr. Castel. "These are all items that you and others touch frequently, and perhaps mindlessly, throughout your day so you want to remember to clean those surfaces."

And if there's just one thing you should pay particular attention to (although, again, you should be disinfecting everything and often), it's your phone, adds Dr. Castel. This is an item everyone uses all. the. time. and yet, frequently forget to disinfect (even though it's teeming with germs). "If you think about it, we are constantly touching our phones, bringing them up to our faces, and laying them down on surfaces so they should be cleaned frequently," she says. "Personally, I am trying to clean my phone at least twice a day." (See also: How to Disinfect Your Phone During Cold and Flu Season)

There's no denying it—and Dr. Harris agrees: All this cleaning will take some time out of your day. But (!!!) it's worth it to stop the spread of the virus. "You need to be methodical and as calm as possible," he says. And, in case you need a friendly reminder, you totally got this.

Hydrate, eat well, and take meds when necessary.

If the person you're taking care of at home is super sick, you might need to bring them food and drinks in bed. "Hydration is key," says Dr. Harris, who suggests everyone drink plenty of water, as well as electrolyte-filled fluids, like Pedialyte, Gatorade, or Nuun tablets. Regular meals will also help keep up the COVID-19 patient's energy; but for someone who doesn't want to eat, Dr. Harris suggests trying soups and bread, as both are good, light choices to keep them fed.

Also, if the sick person has a sore throat—a common symptom of COVID-19—soft foods, like yogurt or broth or even just a cup of tea might help soothe it, says Dr. Castel.

If you can just leave these essentials outside the patient's door instead of handing it directly do them, then Dr. Castel encourages you to do just that. "This will minimize any face-to-face contact and hand-to-hand contact," she says. "When you receive the dishes back, you should handle them wearing gloves and then wash them off." If you don't have gloves, Dr. Castel suggests using disposable utensils so you can throw them out right after use. (Speaking of food, learn how to safely handle your groceries during the pandemic.)

To control fevers, another common symptom of coronavirus, Dr. Harris recommends Tylenol. (Ibuprofen might make coronavirus worse, but experts are divided.) "I usually tell caregivers to be the ones dispensing medication and not to leave bottles in patient's areas because they will be contaminated and the patient can even forget when they last took a dose as they may be feverish or confused," he says. To avoid contact with the sick person, leave the meds in his or her separate bathroom or wear gloves and a mask if you have to hand them directly to the person.

Maintain open communication with doctors.

When someone in your house is suspected sick with coronavirus, it's important you or your roommate call their primary care doctor, so that there's an open dialogue about their symptoms. If you do decide the illness is severe—meaning they have fever of 104°F, difficulty breathing, persistent pressure or pain in the chest, bluish lips, pale face, among other severe symptoms—Dr. Castel suggests calling the hospital to determine whether it's better to have an ambulance come rather than driving there. (Related: What to Do If You Think You Have the Coronavirus)

"It is really important that people realize that the virus is highly infectious, and we are seeing a fair amount of household transmission," says Dr. Castel. "If you are living with someone with COVID-19 or have been in direct contact with someone, not only should they be in isolation, but you should [also] be in quarantine. This is not the time to have any visitors or family members come by (and definitely not the time to head to the gym). You should be home, in a separate space, and monitoring yourself for symptoms for up to 14 days. All of these efforts will help stop or at least slow the spread of the virus throughout our communities." For more info on when it's OK to end home isolation, check out the CDC's recommendations.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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