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Caring for Someone with a Respiratory Illness at Home

Respiratory illnesses such as flu and COVID-19 are often caused by a virus. These infections can spread from person to person. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. In most cases, you can care for someone with a viral respiratory infection at home. 

It’s important to: 

  • Treat symptoms according to your health care provider’s instructions
  • Watch for signs of worsening illness
  • Prevent the spread of illness to others

How to care for someone with a respiratory illness

  • Know what symptoms to expect. Symptoms of respiratory illness like COVID-19 or the flu may include:
    • Fever
    • Cough
    • Runny nose
    • Sore throat
    • Shortness of breath
    • Fatigue
    • Headaches
    • Body aches
    • Nausea
    • Diarrhea
    • Decreased sense of smell and/or taste
  • Make sure the patient drinks plenty of fluids and stays hydrated.
  • Encourage the patient to rest.
  • Treat symptoms using over-the-counter medicines as recommended by your health care provider.
  • Watch for signs of an emergency:
    • Trouble breathing
    • Pain or pressure in the chest that will not stop
    • Confusion or lethargy
    • Lips or face turning blue

Talk to your health care provider about symptoms that worry you. The list above includes some of the more common warning signs. There may be others. In a medical emergency, call 911.


Preventing germs from spreading to others

Keep the patient away from other people to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others.

  • Have the patient stay in a separate room and away from other family members as much as possible.
  • Have the patient wear a face mask when around other people. Do not put face masks on children under the age of 2.
  • Limit the number of family members who care for the patient and limit contact as much as possible.
  • The family caregiver should wear a mask for all care activities and interactions. It is best if both the family member and patient wear a mask.
  • Keep the door to the patient’s room closed.
  • If possible, designate a bathroom to be used only by the patient.
  • Do not allow the patient to use common living, kitchen, or dining areas. If the patient must use common areas, all family members should wear a mask. 
  • Do not allow visitors into your home.

Clean household items and surfaces, especially those used by the patient.

  • Use a disinfectant cleaner to kill germs. Pay extra attention to high-touch surfaces like:
    • Phones
    • Remotes
    • Doorknobs
  • Do not share personal items or electronic devices with the patient.
  • Bring food and drinks to the patient. Make sure the patient does not touch shared food containers or kitchen items.
  • Wash dishes in hot water or clean in the dishwasher.
  • Wash laundry thoroughly in the warmest temperature recommended and dry completely.
  • Take extra care when cleaning patient areas and items the patient uses:
    • Wear a disposable mask and gloves any time you handle patient body fluids, including tissues or diapers.
    • Wash clothes or bedding right away if they have body fluids on them.
    • Hold the dirty linens away from your body. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after removing your gloves. Follow the clothing label instructions. Use the warmest temperature recommended for clothes washing.
    • Do not share towels or blankets.
  • Keep a lined trash can for patient use. Place all disposable gloves and masks in a garbage can with a liner. Put used tissues directly in the trash can.
  • Always use gloves when taking out the trash and changing the trash can liner. Wash your hands right away after removing the gloves.
  • If disposable gloves are not available, use clean kitchen gloves or anything that can put a clean physical barrier between your body and the patient’s used items.
Illustration of adult male wearing mask and gloves while handling clothing

Take care handling patient items, especially if they may have body fluids on them.

Supply Checklist for Home Care

  • Thermometer
  • Over-the-counter fever-reducing medicine
  • Tissues
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Face masks
  • Disposable gloves
  • Hand soap
  • Disposable paper towels
  • Trash can with liner
  • Regular dish soap
  • Regular laundry detergent
  • Household cleaner and disinfectant
7 ways to stop the flu are get the vaccine as soon as you are able, avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home when you are sck, cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, wash your hands often, avoid touching your face, and practice good health habits daily.

Take these actions to protect yourself and others from the flu and help stop the spread of germs.

Make sure that all family members take steps to prevent infection inside and outside the home.

  •  Wear a face mask that covers the mouth and nose.
  • Try to keep a physical distance from others.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Increase air flow in common rooms in the home.
  • In the case of COVID-19 infection, check the quarantine and isolation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Guidelines vary depending on your situation and vaccination status.

If your child has a weak immune system or other medical condition, close monitoring is especially important. Contact your health care provider to let them know your child may have been exposed to a sick person, especially if your child shows symptoms.   

Key points about caring for someone with a respiratory illness at home

  • Flu and COVID-19 are common respiratory illnesses caused by a virus.
  • When someone has a respiratory infection, you can usually care for them at home.
  • Most people who get sick with the flu or COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms. But some people can get very sick. It is important to know what symptoms to look for and contact your health care provider about symptoms that worry you.
  • Keep the patient isolated from others, wear a face mask, and wash your hands often when providing patient care.
  • Clean household surfaces with a disinfectant cleaner and do not share personal items.

Reviewed: January 2024