How to safely treat COVID-19 at home and in the hospital


(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — Social media abounds with ideas for COVID-19 treatments, but experts warn against self-treating with untested and potentially dangerous substances.

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More mild cases of COVID-19 can be addressed at home with over-the-counter medications like Motrin, Advil, or Tylenol, said Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC. These can help reduce muscle aches and fevers.

However, Goldman said individuals with COVID-19 should avoid aspirin because it has been associated with severe negative reactions when taken to address other viral infections.

Drinking plenty of fluids, getting lots of rest, and eating salty foods like chicken noodle soup or pretzels can also help those who have contracted the coronavirus, Goldman advised.

For those who wish to take vitamin D to combat COVID-19, Goldman noted that it should not be taken in large doses as it can cause unwanted symptoms like nausea or vomiting.

Goldman also said that individuals with COVID-19 may want to get a pulse oximeter to monitor their oxygen levels. People who have COVID-19 might have very low levels of oxygen even though they do not feel very ill, Goldman said, so monitoring oxygen levels can help those with COVID-19 know if they should seek extra care.

A normal oxygen level is around 94-96%, Goldman said. People should be wary if their oxygen level drops below 92%. If it falls to around 90%, they should contact their doctor, and if it gets into the 80s or lower, they should go to the emergency room, Goldman said.

There is no pill that individuals can take to “cure” COVID-19 since it’s a viral infection, Golman explained. Instead, treatments like these can help mitigate the symptoms of the disease, while the body’s natural immune system ultimately fends it off.

For those with more serious cases of COVID-19, monoclonal antibodies have been shown to reduce the rate of hospital admission for high-risk patients by 60-70%, Goldman said. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made antibodies that target the coronavirus. While they do not get rid of the virus, they can prevent it from getting worse.

The manufactured antibodies are administered via IV infusion over the course of about an hour and a half. Goldman explained that because they take longer to administer than a simple injection, the monoclonal antibodies cannot be distributed just anywhere.

UPMC is currently giving about 20-30 of these antibody infusions every day, Goldman said, and they administer the antibodies in their infusion centers and in the emergency room.

The antibodies should not be given to patients who are sick enough to require oxygen or who are hospitalized with COVID-19, Goldman explained, but there are other treatments hospitals can administer to patients with severe coronavirus cases.

Medical professionals may give steroids to individuals with more severe cases of COVID-19, which often includes those who are hospitalized and in need of oxygen. Evidence suggests that steroids can decrease mortality from COVID-19 by around 20% for those with mild disease and 30% for those with severe disease, Goldman said.

Goldman said that UPMC doctors almost always administer the drug remdesivir, which inhibits the coronavirus, to COVID-19 patients. A combination of remdesivir and steroids seems to have positive effects for COVID-19 patients, Goldman said.

“When we began using steroids and remdesivir, we saw a dramatic decrease in COVID morbidity and mortality, we saw fewer people ending up in the ICU, we saw fewer people on ventilators, we saw many fewer people dying,” Goldman said.

For patients with some of the most severe COVID-19 cases, the disease may reach a point at which the body’s immune system may overreact, and it ultimately does more harm than the virus. In situations when that could happen, patients may be given immunomodulators to help regulate their immune responses, Goldman explained.

In severe COVID-19 cases, these treatments are associated with around a 10% decrease in mortality, said Goldman. Some specific types of immunomodulators that may be used for coronavirus patients include tocilizumab and baricitinib, he added.

Hospitalized COVID-19 patients likely need oxygen, as well. Goldman explained that as much as possible, oxygen is administered via a nasal cannula, or a tube that goes in a patient’s nose. Over the course of the pandemic, Goldman said, experts have learned that it is best to keep patients off of ventilators, as they can actually do more harm than good.

Much like over-the-counter COVID-19 treatments, most of what the hospital can do for coronavirus patients does not truly cure the virus. “A lot of this is just what I would describe as good supportive care, trying to keep you well enough through the hospitalization that your body gets the chance to eventually fight off COVID,” Goldman said.

UPMC is currently monitoring data that suggests remdesivir might not be as helpful as has been thought, Goldman said. Part of the process of developing safe COVID-19 treatments is the study and monitoring of those treatments, something that does not necessarily happen for purported remedies that circulate on social media.

“My first message is really if you’re going to decide how to treat yourself, stay off social media. There’s just a huge amount out there that is flat out wrong and, I think, often harmful,” Goldman said.

Goldman said he does not think hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin works. In fact, he said, ivermectin taken in doses that are too large can be harmful and even put individuals in the emergency room with ivermectin poisoning.

“You hear things about people gargling with Betadine — don’t try that. You hear about people ingesting bleach — that will hurt you,” Goldman said.

Goldman encourages individuals looking for ways to treat COVID-19 on their own to turn to reputable sources rather than social media. He recommended the CDC’s website, the Department of Health’s website, Johns Hopkins’s website, and UPMC’s website as some possible resources.

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Although there are ways individuals and medical professionals can address COVID-19 symptoms in those who contract the disease, Goldman said, “The best way to treat [COVID-19] is to prevent it.”

Unvaccinated individuals are more likely to catch COVID-19 and more likely to be hospitalized by it, Goldman said, reiterating information from other experts. Goldman also noted that while breakthrough infections do occur, vaccinated people who contract the virus are less likely to have severe cases.

Other steps like eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising can help protect against COVID-19 and serious infections, Goldman said, but overall, “I think the best treatment is prevention with the vaccine,” he said.

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