Have COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test? How long to isolate, and what to do ASAP

Take these steps to if you have coronavirus symptoms or live with someone who does.

Katie Teague Writer II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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Every situation is different, but here are some best practices to follow if you suspect someone you live with is sick with the coronavirus -- or even you.

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The number of coronavirus cases and deaths are continuing to rise across the US as a result of close human contact as states and businesses began to reopen. If you've been in any situations where social distancing wasn't possible, or in a high-risk area like a bar or airplane, and you're experiencing symptoms, you may be concerned that you're infected with COVID-19. Or perhaps you live with someone else whose symptoms -- even mild ones -- may match up to COVID-19. 

Here are the steps to take to avoid spreading the virus to others, as well as how to care for someone who might be sick, especially if you all share the same roof. We'll tell you when to call the doctor to see if you're eligible for COVID-19 testing, how to monitor your symptoms and how long to isolate for others.

We've drawn suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as first-hand advice from people we know who have recovered from the coronavirus. Here are recommendations for how to adjust if you suspect someone in your household has COVID-19, but is not sick enough for hospitalization. Note this is not an exhaustive list and guidance from public health agencies is changing over time.
Here's what you need to know about finding a coronavirus testing site near you, and the latest on coronavirus antibody tests and nasal swab testing.

Contact your doctor

At the first sign of what could be the coronavirus, contact your doctor immediately to list symptoms and ask for advice on whether you should pursue COVID-19 testing. In many cases, the doctor will need to order the test for you (more on this below). 

If the patient has underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk for fatality, the doctor will also be able to weigh in on which medications they should and shouldn't take and how they'll need to adjust their lifestyle, including what kind of vital signs you should monitor as the illness progresses.

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Isolate yourself or the person who's sick

As soon as you or someone you live with suspects they have symptoms of COVID-19 (or tests positive for the coronavirus), they need to isolate from others until they test negative, or until the symptoms are long gone (more details below). 

They should wear a face mask or cloth covering if they're in the same room as you or your housemates and everyone needs to make sure they've thoroughly washed their hands with hand soap for 20 seconds after interacting. It's also important to keep the house sanitized. A healthy person could reduce contact with a sick person by filling a water pitcher and preparing food for the patient, leaving both at a safe distance for them to collect.

Watch this: Make your own gadgets to protect you from coronavirus

The CDC suggests isolating in a bedroom away from others. We understand that's not always an option -- for example, if you live in a studio apartment with a significant other or share a small house with many others. 

If there isn't an extra room to stay in, make sure to maintain a six-foot distance at all times to practice social distancing. Unfortunately, that might mean someone's sleeping on the couch, on a mattress on the floor or so on. 

Read more: Where to buy face masks and cloth coverings online for you and for your kids

Keep an eye on ventilation

The World Health Organization and doctors across the world are investigating the coronavirus' ability to linger in the air and infect people. Airborne transmission is thought to be higher indoors, and especially in areas with limited ventilation. If you're caring for someone who is staying in their room, open a window and plan a way to circulate air around the space, for their own comfort, as well as to disperse any lingering coronavirus particles.


It's a good idea to ventilate any space where a sick person is isolating. (Here's our list of the best tower fans.)

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What if you only have one bathroom?

The CDC recommends the presumptive coronavirus patient use a different bathroom if possible. If you only have one bathroom, the person who's ill should wear a mask when they leave their isolation room. After they leave the bathroom, make sure the toilet, sink, shower, handles and soap dispensers get sanitized. The CDC recommends that the sick person clean the bathroom as long as they're feeling up to it.

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. Also, avoid using the same hand towel as the potentially infected person. It's a good idea to set up a caddy for items that only the sick person uses, like a separate soap dispenser, towel, toothpaste tube and so on.

How to care for a person with presumed or confirmed COVID-19

If there are multiple people who live in your home, the CDC suggests only one person should take care of the sick one to limit the number of people who might come in contact with the virus. That includes bringing them food or medicine; checking their temperature, vitals and blood pressure; and laundering their clothes and bedding. 

It's a good idea, however, for the carer to wear gloves and a face mask when coming in contact with anything the infected person has touched, before washing their hands directly after. 


You'll need to check the infected person's temperature daily to see if they have a fever.

Angela Lang/CNET

When you bring food, for example, you can place it inside the room they're staying in, but avoid contact with them and make sure your nose and mouth are covered -- theirs, too. 

While in isolation, your roommate may start to feel lonely, so make sure you're comforting them by sending them texts, calling to talk from the next room or talking to them through the door. Michigan Health suggests opening a window for air circulation.

Monitor symptoms

It's important to note that many hospitals don't want you to go to the emergency room or arrive for a COVID-19 test without a doctor's order, or an advanced state of symptoms, like high fever over 102 degrees. In many places, the number of tests are limited and hospitals must follow protocols to limit the exposure of sick people to the rest of the hospital population. 

The CDC and hospitals such as Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles suggest contacting your primary care provider (PDF) about symptoms and the next steps you should take.

Some COVID-19 patients have been found to present with low blood oxygen saturation levels. Some people use a pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygen, to monitor oxygen saturation at home. (Here's where to buy a pulse oximeter.)

Symptoms that typically warrant a COVID-19 test include:

  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat

A pulse oximeter helps monitor blood oxygen levels at home.

Screenshot by Celso Bulgatti/CNET

Everyone needs to stay home

If the person you live with has contracted the coronavirus, it's possible you and other housemates have already been exposed, and you could be presymptomatic or asymptomatic. The WHO states the incubation period for someone with coronavirus is between one to 14 days. This is the time between catching the virus and seeing symptoms. This means you need to quarantine yourself for two weeks to prevent spreading the virus to others.

To avoid going out, have your food and groceries delivered to your door. The CDC says if it's been 10 days since symptoms first appeared, and at least 24 hours without a fever, you can leave the house for necessities again. 

Disinfect surfaces often

Make sure you're cleaning and disinfecting high-traffic surfaces in your home daily. This includes doorknobs, remote controls, bathroom surfaces, kitchen counters, appliances and your phone. Use products from the EPA's approved list of disinfectants to help kill the coronavirus.

The American Red Cross says to avoid sharing household items, such as glasses, utensils, towels and bedding. If an ill person uses any of these items, they should be washed thoroughly.


Disinfect the surfaces in your home daily.

James Martin/CNET

When is it OK to stop self-isolating?

If the infected person doesn't have access to testing, the CDC states they can be around others if they've had 24 hours with no fever or fever-reducing medications, symptoms like coughing have improved and at least 10 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared.

To help better prepare you for a coronavirus case in your home, here's what you need to know about making a face mask or covering at home, where you can buy a face mask if you don't have the right tools and how to disinfect your car and home to help kill coronavirus.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.