Get to know your treatment options for COVID-19

Last updated: May 10, 2021
Learn about the latest treatments available for adults and children with mild, moderate, or severe COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, doctors have learned a lot about how to treat COVID-19. Some of the treatments used today are available only through emergency use authorization (EUA). This means the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized them for use during the pandemic without all the evidence it might typically require. There was still enough data to show the treatments are effective and safe. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also developed treatment guidelines for doctors.

Any treatments used for COVID-19 should be prescribed or approved by your doctor. You could be seriously hurt or die if you take a drug that’s not approved for COVID-19, even if it’s used for other diseases. That’s why it’s so important to stay in touch with your medical provider through all stages of your illness, even if it seems mild.

Here’s how experts define mild, moderate, and severe COVID-19, and the different treatments available for each stage of the disease.

What is mild COVID-19 illness?

About 80% of people with COVID-19 have mild or moderate illness. This generally means they can rest at home until they get better. Symptoms start anywhere from two days to two weeks after exposure. They can include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting

Your treatment options

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. They can ease fever and body aches. 

OTC cough medications. Look for one that contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan if your cough is uncomfortable or makes it hard to sleep.

Monoclonal antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that your body makes to fight off disease while you’re sick. Monoclonal antibodies are designed in a lab. They are delivered through an IV at a doctor’s office or infusion center. The FDA allows their use in people ages 12 and older who are at high risk for developing complications from the virus. You may be eligible if you:

  • You are overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or higher,
  • Have chronic kidney disease,
  • Have diabetes,
  • Have a disease that compromises your immune system, like HIV or rheumatoid arthritis,
  • Are 65 or older, or
  • Are 55 or older with heart disease, high blood pressure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What is moderate COVID-19 illness?

Some people who begin with mild symptoms of COVID-19 find that they worsen. This is more likely to happen if you have risk factors for severe disease, such as obesity or type 2 diabetes. In addition to all the symptoms of mild COVID-19, the main symptom of moderate illness is shortness of breath.

Your treatment options

If you have trouble breathing, let your doctor know right away. They may send you for a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia. They may also have you watch your blood oxygen level at home with a pulse oximeter, a small device that clips onto your finger. The treatment options are the same as if you have mild symptoms. But if your oxygen level dips below 94%, you may need to go to the hospital.

What is severe COVID-19 illness?

About 15% of people with COVID-19 develop disease severe enough to need care in the hospital. Often this is due to pneumonia or hypoxemia, a condition in which your blood levels of oxygen are lower than normal. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Confusion
  • Bluish skin, fingernails, and lips

If you have any of these signs, call 911 right away. You need to go to the hospital for treatment. You may need to stay in the intensive care unit to get critical care.

Your treatment options

Oxygen. Most people hospitalized with COVID-19 require extra oxygen. 

Steroids. These are thought to reduce some of the inflammation caused by COVID-19. Steroids have been shown to help hospitalized patients who need supplemental oxygen. If you are on supplemental oxygen, steroids may reduce your risk of death.

Antiviral medications. One, called Remdesivir, was approved by the FDA to treat COVID-19 in people ages 12 and older. Antivirals stop COVID-19 from multiplying in your body. They may shorten your time in the hospital and keep you from getting more severe respiratory symptoms. 

Convalescent plasma. Plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 can contain antibodies to the virus. It’s thought that this may help the immune system recognize and respond better to the virus. 

Blood thinners. COVID-19 can also damage other organs like your heart or brain. Blood thinners can help prevent or treat blood clots that can be caused by COVID-19.

Prevention is the best strategy for keeping you well

It’s very important to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to you. If enough people get vaccinated, it will slow the spread of the virus and reduce the need for treatments. Also, early anecdotal reports suggest that getting vaccinated helps ease symptoms of long-haul COVID-19 or post-acute COVID syndrome, where symptoms last long after infection.

Some other things you can do to help control the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Practice social distancing. Stay at least six feet away from other people and avoid crowds.
  • Wear a face mask when you need to go out.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often. If you’re not near a sink, use a hand-sanitizing gel with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid or limit travel if you can.

 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It’s also important to continue practicing social distancing (keeping at least 6 feet away from people outside your household) and washing your hands frequently. You should also be appropriately masked any time you’ll be in public. According to the CDC’s latest guidance, this means layering a disposable mask underneath a snug-fitting cloth mask or placing a mask fitter over your cloth mask to ensure a tight fit. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, their local public health department and our COVID-19 member site.  

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