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If Someone in Your Home Has COVID-19: How to Keep Others Safe

woman caring for sick husband
Neha Pathak, MD - Blogs
By Neha Pathak, MDBoard-certified internistMarch 26, 2020

We’ve all learned the basics of how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from becoming infected by the virus that causes COVID-19. Effective social distancing is at the heart of prevention, along with vigilant hand hygiene, disinfecting “high-touch surfaces,” and staying away from sick people.

Even with all of our preparation, there is a chance that someone that we live with will become infected with the virus. By some estimates, somewhere around 60% of people will get COVID-19 (most people will have mild to moderate symptoms that will not require hospitalization). So, it’s a good idea to come up with a plan for an “isolation zone” in case a family member or someone you live with is diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19 and needs to be taken care of at home.

Since we know that the virus is transmitted through droplets when someone coughs or sneezes and contact with contaminated surfaces, there are steps we can take to stay safe. Here are some things to consider when creating an “isolation zone” in your home:

  • Designate a separate room where you can close the door, if possible. If that’s not an option, find a space where there is at least 6 feet between the sick person and other people.
  • Those who are not sick should use a different bathroom from those who are, if available. If a separate bathroom is not available, the sick person should clean the bathroom after each use. Others in the home should try to let the bathroom “air out” for at least 30 minutes before using it again. And make sure that everyone in the home – regardless of which bathroom they’re using – closes the toilet lid when flushing and runs the exhaust fan to limit viral particles in stool from hanging out in the air.
  • Try to make sure that any shared spaces in the home have good air flow, with an air conditioner or an open window. Air filters and air purifiers can also be helpful in these situations -- look for air filters that are designated MERV 13 or higher. Humidifying the air can also be helpful, because viruses live longer at lower humidity. Setting the humidity to between 40-60% is ideal.
  • If possible, the sick family member should wear a facemask when they are around other people (a basic surgical mask is what’s recommended) . Caretakers can use one too when within 6 feet of a sick person. If a facemask is not available, limit time in close contact to less than 15 minutes and disinfect all surfaces that the sick person has come in contact with. If not having a facemask makes you feel anxious, you can make a DIY face mask at home, though be aware that we still don’t know how much protection a DIY mask truly offers. If you do make one, make sure it fits snugly around your mouth and nose. The University of Cambridge did some studies looking at the protection you may get from different materials: from vacuum cleaner bags to cotton t-shirts.
  • Avoid sharing household items like dishes, cups, utensils, towels, bedding, or other items.
  • Don’t allow the sick family member to interact with or care for any pets in the home.
  • Clean all “high-touch” surfaces, such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables, every day. Also, clean any surfaces that may have blood, stool, or body fluids on them.
  • Wash laundry thoroughly. If you can, wear disposable gloves while handling soiled items and keep soiled items away from your body. Remember to clean your hands immediately after removing your gloves.
  • Place all used disposable gloves, facemasks, and other contaminated items in a bag before disposing of them with other household waste.

Make sure to monitor your loved one’s symptoms and call the healthcare team immediately if their symptoms worsen.

Taking care of someone that is sick is a big responsibility. At the same time, caring for yourself is incredibly important. Make healthy lifestyle choices and pay attention to your body. If you or others in the home start to develop symptoms, make sure to get in touch with your healthcare team right away.

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About the Author
Neha Pathak, MD

Neha Pathak, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and part of WebMD's team of medical editors responsible for ensuring the accuracy of health information on the site. Before joining WebMD, Pathak worked as a primary care physician at the Department of Veterans Affairs and was an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

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