Coronavirus treatment progress
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, doctors were scrambling to figure out the best way to treat it. Hospitals were overwhelmed with very sick patients. It was a brand-new disease and there was so much experts didn’t know about it.
But we have learned a lot about COVID-19 in a relatively short time. Doctors have a better understanding of how to treat people with the illness—from mild to severe symptoms.
The result: Fewer people are being hospitalized. And those who are have a much greater chance of surviving the illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in April 2020, when the pandemic hit the U.S., 6.7% of cases resulted in death. By September, the mortality rate dropped to 1.9%.
The drop in the mortality rate was partially due to a greater percentage of younger patients getting COVID-19, more people being diagnosed with the disease in the early stages due to testing, fewer people crowding hospitals, and potentially a reduced viral load in infected people because of mask wearing and social distancing.
But improvements in treatment were also a key factor in the higher survival rates.
Here’s how COVID-19 is best treated today—both if you have a milder form of it and staying home or if you’re experiencing a more severe case in the hospital.
Treating COVID-19 at home
If you have a mild or moderate form of COVID-19—which is about 80% of people with symptoms—it’s likely you’ll be able to recover at home.
Always call your doctor and follow their advice. They know if you have other health issues and will be able to make sure your symptoms aren’t getting worse. But in general, this is what to do to keep the illness from worsening.
Focus on relieving symptoms
When you have mild symptoms, do whatever you can to relieve symptoms and stay as comfortable as possible.
- Over-the-counter fever reducers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can help with fever, chills, and body aches.
- Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated.
- Get plenty of rest. You don’t have to stay in bed all day, but if you’re feeling weak or tired, lie down.
Monitor your oxygen levels
For patients at high risk of complications, such as adults ages 65 and older and those with lung problems or other underlying health conditions, your doctor may recommend you monitor your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. This is a device—available at drugstores and online—that you clip on your finger to monitor your oxygen level. Here’s how to use them:
- Sit still when doing the reading and don’t move the hand that has the oximeter on it.
- Cold fingers can affect your oxygen reading, so check that your hands aren’t cold when you take your reading.
- If you have fingernail polish on, remove it before using the oximeter.
- An oxygen level should stay higher than 92%. If it consistently falls lower than that, then this could be a warning that you should go to the hospital.
- Talk to your doctor about the model oximeter you’re using—some that are linked to your smartphone are less reliable.
New medication for those at high risk
The FDA has just allowed an emergency authorization for using the drug bamlanivimaba—a monoclonal antibody—to treat COVID-19. Bamlanivimaba attacks the virus and lowers the risk of it worsening.
It’s only authorized for people who have a higher risk of severe COVID-19, such as those ages 65 and older, or who have an underlying health condition like chronic kidney disease, heart disease, or diabetes. And their COVID-19 symptoms have to be relatively mild or moderate.
It is given as a one-time dose through an IV line and is in limited supply. Call your doctor to discuss this option if you have COVID-19 and are in a high-risk group.
Treating COVID-19 at the hospital
If symptoms of COVID-19 become more serious—including having trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, bluish lips or face, or trouble staying awake or waking—call your doctor or go to the hospital. If you first want to talk to your doctor, ask them what symptoms would mean that you should go to the ER or call 911.
So far, the most advancements in treatment have been for hospitalized patients with COVID-19.
At the hospital, you’ll most likely be given oxygen to help boost your blood oxygen levels. You will be given air with extra oxygen added to it. This can be done through a mask or nasal cannula.
Lie on your stomach
To make it easier to breathe and reduce the use of ventilators, doctors are having patients lie on their stomach instead of their back while receiving supplemental oxygen. This position relieves pressure on their lungs, allowing the lungs to inhale more oxygen.
Remdesivir is FDA-approved to treat COVID-19. It is considered an antiviral medication, meaning it can slow the spread of the virus through your body. It is sometimes given to people who are hospitalized with serious symptoms to reduce the risk of complications.
Steroids to suppress the immune system
Many of the severe complications of COVID-19, like failing lungs or kidney damage, are due to the immune system overreacting to the virus. In those cases, you might be given a steroid called dexamethasone. It helps calm the immune system, helping stop it from damaging organs and tissues.
Steroids have been found to save lives. But they should only be given to patients who are critically ill. Not only can they have side effects, but they can also keep you from fighting the virus naturally. For those with a milder form of the disease, the doctors rather let the immune system do its job.
If it’s still hard to breathe even with supplemental oxygen and you are experiencing difficulty breathing (respiratory failure), you might get intubated (a tube is placed down the throat) and put on a ventilator. When COVID-19 first hit, more people were being put on ventilators, but because ventilation comes with many serious health risks, it’s usually a last resort treatment.
Treating other conditions
COVID-19 doesn’t just affect the lungs. It can attack blood vessels and other organs in the body. Doctors also need to treat some of the complications from COVID-19. Other medications may be required.
- If you develop venous thromboembolism (blood clots in the veins), you’ll be given an anticoagulant to prevent clotting.
- You may be given antibiotics (one kind or a combination) to help treat the pneumonia brought on by COVID-19.
Medications on the horizon
There are other treatments that might get approved in the future once there is more evidence supporting them. For instance, there is hope that antibodies taken from people who have recovered from COVID-19 (called convalescent plasma) can be used as a treatment. So far, there hasn’t been enough evidence for this to be a recommended treatment.
Recovering from COVID-19
If you’ve been hospitalized with COVID-19 and were in critical condition, your recovery may be a long road. But many people can expect to feel better within 3 to 6 weeks after leaving the hospital. Still, during that time, you may continue to experience shortness of breath, cough, heart palpitations, joint pain, headache, weakness, as well as mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating.
Continue to work with your medical team, including rehabilitation therapists you need to help you recover as quickly as possible.
The scientific understanding of COVID-19 as well as guidelines for its prevention and treatment are constantly changing. There may be new information since this article was published. It’s important to check with sources like the CDC for the most up-to-date information.