How to care for someone who has COVID-19 while keeping yourself safe

By Vanessa Lambe

If you are caring for a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, follow this advice to protect yourself and others in the home, as well as those in your community.

At-home treatment of COVID-19

Most people who become sick with COVID-19 will only experience mild illness and can recover at home. Symptoms might last a few days, and people who have the virus might feel better in about a week. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and includes rest, fluid intake and pain relievers.

  • Help the person who is sick follow their doctor’s instructions for care and home isolation for yourself or your loved one. Talk to the doctor if you have any questions about treatments and using over-the-counter medicines as recommended.
  • Know what symptoms to expect. Common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include fatigue, body aches, and chills. Some patients may have runny nose, decreased sense of smell and/or taste, nausea, or diarrhea. There is no medicine that will treat the virus or make symptoms go away completely.
  • Make sure the patient drinks plenty of fluids and stays hydrated.
  • Encourage the patient to rest.
  • Take care of their pet(s), and limit contact between the person who is sick and their pet(s) when possible.

Emergency warning signs

Watch for the start or worsening of symptoms in the person with COVID-19 you’re caring for.

If they are showing any of these signs, seek emergency medical care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face

Note: This list includes some of the more common warning signs. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms that worry you.

Call 911 or call ahead to your local emergency facility: Notify the operator that you are seeking care for someone who has or may have COVID-19.

  • If calling an ambulance, tell the dispatcher that the person you’re caring for has COVID-19.
  • If taking a private vehicle to the hospital, call ahead to let them know that the person you’re caring for has COVID-19.
  • Follow personal practices for all public spaces and:
    • keep your car window open if possible
    • the person with COVID-19 should sit in the back seat, away from the driver

If you’re unsure if the person’s symptoms require emergency care, use the Government of Ontario’s self-assessment tool to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care.

Limit Contact

It is also important to consider how caring for a sick person might affect your health. If you are older or have an existing chronic medical condition, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes, you may be at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19. You might consider isolating yourself from the sick person and finding another person to provide care.

  • Only one healthy person should provide care.
  • Do not share personal items with the ill person, such as toothbrushes, towels, bed linen, utensils or electronic devices.
  • Consume food and beverages in separate rooms or areas.
  • Use a separate bathroom from the ill person, if possible.
    • If not possible, the ill person should put the toilet lid down before flushing.
  • Some people may transmit COVID-19 even though they do not show any symptoms. Wearing a mask, including a non-medical mask or face covering (i.e. made with at least two layers of tightly woven fabric, constructed to completely cover the nose and mouth without gaping, and secured to the head by ties or ear loops) can help protect others around you.

Protect yourself

  • If you are at risk of more severe disease or outcomes you should not care for someone with COVID-19 (if possible).
  • If you need to be within 2 metres of the ill person, wear personal protective equipment:
  • Wear disposable gloves when touching the ill person, their environment and soiled items or surfaces.
  • Avoid re-using medical masks or gloves.
  • Clean your hands often for at least 20 seconds, especially after contact with the ill person and after removing gloves, face masks and eye protection.
  • Dry your hands with disposable paper towels.
    • If not available, use a reusable towel and replace it when it becomes wet.
  • You can also remove dirt with a wet wipe and then use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

Keep your environment clean

  • Place used medical masks, gloves and other contaminated items in a lined container, secure the contents and dispose of them with other household waste.
  • Place possibly contaminated laundry, including non-medical cloth masks and facial coverings, into a container with a plastic liner and do not shake.
    • Wash with regular laundry soap and hot water (60-90°C), and dry well.
    • Clothing, linens and non-medical cloth masks and facial coverings belonging to the ill person can be washed with other laundry.
  • At least once daily, clean and disinfect surfaces that people touch often, such as toilets, laundry containers, bedside tables, doorknobs, phones and television remotes.
  • Use only approved hard-surface disinfectants that have a Drug Identification Number (DIN). A DIN is an 8-digit number given by Health Canada that confirms the disinfectant product is approved and safe for use in Canada.
  • When approved hard surface disinfectants are not available, for household disinfection, a diluted bleach solution can be prepared in accordance with the instructions on the label, or in a ratio of 5 millilitres (mL) of bleach per 250 mL of water OR 20 mL of bleach per litre of water. This ratio is based on bleach containing 5% sodium hypochlorite, to give a 0.1% sodium hypochlorite solution. Follow instructions for proper handling of household (chlorine) bleach.
  • If they can withstand the use of liquids for disinfection, high-touch electronic devices (e.g. keyboards, tablets, smartboards) may be disinfected with 70% alcohol (e.g. alcohol prep wipes) at least daily.

Monitor yourself for symptoms

  • If you have always used the recommended precautions, then monitor yourself for symptoms for 14 days following your last close contact with the ill person.
  • Quarantine (self-isolate) at home for 14 days from your last exposure and contact your local public health authority if you have no symptoms but:
    • cared for a person who has COVID-19 without the recommended personal protective equipment
    • live with or had close physical contact (e.g. intimate partner) without using the recommended personal protective equipment
    • live with or have had regular close contact (within 2 metres) with a person who has COVID-19 up to 48 hours prior to symptom onset or while they were symptomatic and not isolating
    • had direct contact with the body fluids of a person who has COVID-19 (e.g. were coughed or sneezed on) without the recommended personal protective equipment

If you start to develop symptoms, isolate yourself as quickly as possible and contact your local public health authority for further instructions.

Maintain these supplies

  • Medical masks if available, or non-medical mask or face covering
  • Eye protection (face shield or goggles) for use by caregiver
  • Disposable gloves (do not re-use) for use by caregiver
  • Disposable paper towels
  • Tissues
  • Waste container with plastic liner
  • Thermometer
  • Over the counter medication to reduce fever (e.g. ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
  • Hand soap
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol
  • Dish soap
  • Regular laundry soap
  • Regular household cleaning products
  • Hard surface disinfectant, or if not available, concentrated (5%) liquid bleach and a separate container for dilution
  • Alcohol prep wipes or appropriate cleaning products for high-touch electronics

Coping with Caregiving Stress

As you or your loved one recover, you might feel stressed too so it’s important to seek emotional support. Stay connected to others through texts, phone calls or videoconferences. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or moral support: It’s OK to let friends, neighbors and family know that someone you live with is sick, and to seek and accept their help while not letting them near the sick person. They can bring you supplies from the ‘outside world’ and leave them on your doorstep, or ship them to you. They can walk your dog, though you should wipe down the leash first. Don’t forget that you need emotional support and connection to help you get through your time as a COVID-19 caregiver. As the nation works to fight the spread of the virus, and care for the sick, we’re all affected in some way. But connecting with one another in safe ways can help us cope.

If you have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, continue with your treatment. Contact your doctor or mental health professional if your condition worsens.

To care for yourself, follow these steps:

  • Maintain a daily routine, including showering and getting dressed
  • Take breaks from COVID-19 news, including social media
  • Eat healthy meals and stay hydrated
  • Exercise
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid use of drugs and alcohol
  • Stretching, breathe deeply or meditate
  • Focus on enjoyable activities
  • Connect with others and share how you are feeling