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How to treat yourself at home if you get COVID-19

With the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire, more people than ever are getting COVID-19 — even those who are vaccinated.

And while there are still cases of severe illness in some people who contract the virus, the majority of Canadians who have at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will experience typical flu-like symptoms that can be treated with rest and lots of fluids, say doctors who spoke to CBC News. 

Below, we outline what those experts and a couple of people with first-hand experience said you can expect to feel if you contract the virus despite being vaccinated, along with tips on how to treat your symptoms at home.  

If you get COVID-19 after being double-vaccinated with a third booster shot, “the chances are you’re going to have a mild or moderate course of illness,” said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association and a pediatrician in Whitehorse. 

“Very, very few people are requiring hospitalization if they’re fully vaccinated — which is encouraging.”

‘When we think about what can we do at home, it’s really the same sort of self-care things we would do when we normally have a cold or a flu,’ said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association and a pediatrician in Whitehorse. (CBC)

While COVID-19 is spreading so fast health officials across the country have stopped testing for case counts, most vaccinated people who get it should be able to treat symptoms while recovering at home, Smart said.

Common symptoms include runny nose, sore throat, cough and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting and general feelings of fatigue and muscle aches, she said. They tend to last between two and 10 days — on the shorter side if you have vaccine protection, she said.

Nausea, fever, chills 

“I assumed I would never get it,” said Donnie Macphee of Johnston’s River, P.E.I., who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Macphee is double-vaccinated, has been wearing N95 masks for weeks and works in the service industry. A few days before testing positive, he woke up feeling nauseous, but dismissed it as a New Year’s Eve hangover. Then came fever and chills. Then the positive test.

His wife, Rosie Shaw, originally tested negative, but she is immunocompromised and left their home to isolate at a rental. Still, days later, she tested positive.

Rosie Shaw, left, and husband Donnie Macphee of Johnston’s River, P.E.I., both have COVID-19. (Rosie Shaw)

“I am absolutely exhausted — sleeping all the time,” Shaw said. “My nose is raw from being so runny and me blowing it constantly. My throat is very sore, and I have a fever [and] chills for the fourth day in a row.

“I have chronic pain normally, but with COVID there are noticeable body aches that are different than my regular pain.”

In contrast, Macphee’s symptoms were reduced to a runny nose within a few days.

“Aside from that, I feel fine,” he said. 

Over-the-counter pain medications

“Having Tylenol or Advil on hand if you’ve got a sore throat, body aches, fever — that’s important and can really help with your symptoms,” Smart said.

It’s really about just taking it easy, getting lots of rest, staying well hydrated, and knowing what the danger signs are.— Dr. Katharine Smart

She recommended keeping water and “soothing” foods, like soup, nearby, and finding a restful space at home to recover.  

Isolation from other family members is important if they are not infected, she said, echoing public health guidelines.

“It’s really about just taking it easy, getting lots of rest, staying well-hydrated, and knowing what the danger signs are to look out for that should get you to seek more care,” she said. 

“If you’re short of breath, having difficulty catching your breathing, getting fatigued with exertion, when you’re lying flat you’re having trouble breathing, those types of symptoms — those would be reasons to seek emergency care right away.” 

Worsening underlying conditions is also a signal to seek help. 

Over-the-counter pain medication and food should be enough for most people recovering at home, said Dr. Janine McCready, infectious diseases physician at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto and spokesperson for Science Up First. (Janine McCready )

Dr. Janine McCready, an infectious diseases doctor at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto and spokesperson for Science Up First, a collective of medical professionals that combats misinformation, agreed with Smart. 

“For most people, you don’t need much — Tylenol or Advil, a thermometer and food for the time you are isolating,” she said. “If you are at higher risk for severe symptoms, then an oximeter to check oxygen saturation might be required. And hopefully a vaccine in advance to reduce risk of severe disease.”

There is no coronavirus treatment approved yet in Canada for home use, McCready noted, although there are some “around the corner” not widely available for patients with severe symptoms or underlying conditions. Those treatments include monoclonal antibodiesthe steriod dexamethasone and an antidepressant.

“That’s something to certainly stay tuned for,” Smart said.  

For kids: ‘Clear fluids that they’ll drink’

There’s no evidence over-the-counter cold and flu medications help relieve symptoms or change the course of the virus, and they aren’t recommended for children, Smart said.

“The most important thing [for kids] is clear fluids that they’ll drink,” Smart said.

If you’re ill at all, and anything that’s respiratory, make sure you’re staying home and accessing testing if you’re able to.— Dr. Katharine Smart

For children too young to blow their nose, a saline spray or rinse can help, she said. 

Since many people have mild symptoms with Omicron, Smart said it’s important to realize runny nose or cough could be COVID-19, and to stay at home. 

“The real important message for the community is if you’re ill at all, and [have] anything that’s respiratory, make sure you’re staying home and accessing testing if you’re able to,” Smart said.

If testing isn’t available, stay home for at least five days and symptoms have resolved, she said, adding people should let others know they’re isolating and arrange for essential items to be dropped off. 

P.E.I. has launched a hotline for Islanders who need help while isolating due to COVID-19. Those in need of food, medicine or other help can call 211 to be directed to nearby community or government support. 

Back in Johnston’s River, Macphee recommended watching shows to rest and pass the time, but said don’t forget to move around the house and stretch.

It’s been tough for the couple to be apart, “But if separating is what we need to do to keep each other safe and get Donnie back to work as soon as possible, that’s what we’re going to do,” Shaw said.

“Friends have already dropped off care packages, so I’m feeling well taken care of.”

Quick Tips: 

Smart and McCready suggested the following for those experiencing mild symptoms:

  • Take over-the-counter pain relief, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, if needed. 
  • Stay hydrated: drink lots of water.
  • Have soothing foods on hand.
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Isolate from those who are not ill.
  • If you have difficulty breathing seek help immediately. 

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