Think You Have COVID-19? Here’s What to Do

If you believe you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, isolate yourself immediately. Then, take these steps.

sick man using tablet

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on April 15, 2020

As cases of COVID-19 rise across the United States and many other parts of the world, fears of infection are mounting. So much so that every cough, sneeze or sniffle may beg the question: Do I have the new coronavirus?

Complicating matters, this pandemic is occurring during cold, flu and now allergy season in the U.S.—a time when runny noses, fevers, sore throats and coughs are common.

If you, or someone in your home, has symptoms consistent with a respiratory infection, don’t panic. Even if you believe you were exposed to COVID-19, do not go to a local emergency room, urgent care center or your doctor’s office.

Do this instead:

Step 1. Take immediate steps to isolate yourself to avoid spreading your illness to others. This means keeping distance between yourself and the other people in your home.

If possible, confine yourself to a specific room and use a separate bathroom. Limit your contact with any pets in your home and, if you have one available, wear a facemask if you are around other people.

Be sure to also cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throw the tissue away. Be vigilant about washing your hands, avoid touching commonly used surfaces and do not share cups, utensils, towels, bedding or other items with anyone else in your home.

These measures are important, even if you’re not feeling very sick or your symptoms are mild. Many otherwise healthy younger adults and children with COVID-19 only develop mild symptoms.

In fact, some people infected with COVID-19 may be able to pass the novel coronavirus on to others before they develop symptoms—so-called silent spreaders. This incubation period (the time that passes between when you’re exposed to the virus and when your symptoms appear) may range from 2 to 14 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A March 2020 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that the median incubation period for COVID-19 is slightly more than 5 days, and the vast majority of people will develop symptoms within 12 days. In some cases, however, symptoms may appear even after 14 days.

This is why social distancing plays a critical role in curbing the spread of the infection.

Step 2. Call your healthcare provider (HCP) for instructions. Do not go to your doctor’s office without calling ahead first and letting the office staff know that you suspect you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

You can also take advantage of telemedicine and check in with your doctor or HCP through a tablet, computer or smartphone if you have symptoms that may be associated with COVID-19. This type of remote care would not only help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to others but also help conserve essential medical supplies, such as masks and gowns, which are in short supply.

Your doctor can determine if you can be treated at home and also work with your local public health department and the CDC to determine if you should be tested for the coronavirus and where that should be done. You can find your nearest testing location using Sharecare's testing site locator tool.

The CDC offers guidance for who should be tested but decisions about testing are up to your doctor as well as your state and local health officials. Depending on where you live, you may need an order from your doctor to get tested for COVID-19.

It’s important to understand however, that not everyone with suspected novel coronavirus infections will be able to be tested right now.

Testing is available in all 50 states as well as Washington D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. At least 91 public health labs in the United States are offering COVID-19 testing and the number of labs around the country with the ability to test is increasing.

But demand is outpacing the ability of states and local communities to test. There simply aren’t enough tests, masks and other medical supplies to go around. As a result, the White House Coronavirus Task Force advises states to prioritize testing.

“Everyone across the country should understand that those hospitalized or in an ICU are our priority for testing,” said task force member Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, in a March 21 White House briefing. “Symptomatic health care workers, for obvious reasons—we want to make sure that their health is preserved and that they are not going to spread to those who may be seriously ill.”

Many people with mild cases are able to recover on their own at home with supportive care. Aside from healthcare workers, testing may be restricted to people with severe symptoms and those who are at higher risk for life-threatening complications, including older adults and those with chronic health issues, such as heart or lung disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions that weaken the immune system.

If you develop serious warning signs of COVID-19, however, you need to seek immediate medical attention. These reg flags may include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • Feeling confused
  • Bluish lips or face

Call 911 and let the operator know that you have or think you may have COVID-19. If you have a medical mask, put it on before help arrives.

Step 3. If you are advised to be tested, you will receive specific instructions about how to get to the testing site. Be sure to follow these directions carefully to protect those around you, including the healthcare provider that performs your test.

The COVID-19 test is currently a Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel. Results may be ready in a matter of hours, but in some cases, it could take several days. For the test, you will be asked to provide a mucus sample. Using a swab, a healthcare provider will take the sample from inside your nose. If you are coughing up mucus, that may be tested as well.

This test measures the presence of viral RNA in your body and can tell you if you currently have COVID-19.

Another type of blood test, known as an antibody test, would be needed to determine if you’ve ever had the novel coronavirus and since recovered. Since many cases are mild and may go undetected, this test would help give scientists a more accurate picture of how far and wide the disease has spread across the world. An antibody test for COVID-19 is not yet clinically available but researchers are already working to change that.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Interim Clinical Guidance for Management of Patients with Confirmed Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).”
SA Lauer, KH Grantz, Q Bi, et al. “The Incubation Period of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) From Publicly Reported Confirmed Cases: Estimation and Application.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What To Do if You Are Sick.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Testing for COVID-19.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Testing in U.S.”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “LabCorp COVID-19 RT-PCR test EUA Summary.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “CDC Tests for COVID-19.”

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