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Now that the coronavirus is everywhere, what can you do to avoid severe illness?

Hand sanitizer available at a market in Somerville with a sign promoting an environment with less touching.
Hand sanitizer available at a market in Somerville with a sign promoting an environment with less touching.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

As Massachusetts reports new cases and deaths from COVID-19 every day, the Globe asked local experts what more people can do to protect themselves beyond frequent hand-washing and social distancing.

We’ve been told how to avoid getting infected with the coronavirus. But are there any steps individuals can take ahead of time that will make them less likely to suffer severe illness if they do become infected?

No, there is nothing you can do now to fortify yourself against the virus, according to two infectious disease physicians.

“The things that we can do like not smoking, taking good care of ourselves, avoiding the risk factors that play into the disease — those are lifelong changes, not changes you make in a week,” said Dr. Helen W. Boucher, chief of the Division of Geographic Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Tufts Medical Center.


“There’s no medication to boost the immune system, no diet to boost the immune system," said Dr. Daniel R. Kuritzkes, infectious diseases chief at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

But Sophia Thomas, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, thinks it’s worth taking steps to get healthy, even now. She advises eating lots of fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, cutting down on alcohol, and quitting smoking.

Scenes from an eerily empty Boston
Boston empties out to slow the spread of COVID-19 Tuesday after Gov. Baker's stay-at-home advisory went into effect. (Caitlin Healy/Globe staff, Shelby Lum/Globe staff)

“Ideally, it would be great if we were all in perfect condition right now, but many of us are not,” Thomas said. “The more we can do right now, the better our immune systems are going to be able to manage it.”

Still, your best bet remains following all the public health advice to avoid getting infected: Wash your hands often, disinfect surfaces, stay home, and if you must go out, stay six feet away from others.

Once someone is infected, can anything be done to ease the course of illness?


Get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to control your fever. Keep in touch with your doctor, especially if you suffer chest pain or difficulty breathing. Be aware that for some people the illness gets worse in the second week. That’s about it.

While drugs are under investigation, “there is not an approved therapy for the COVID virus,” Boucher said. That means there’s nothing to slow its progression or prevent it from getting worse, she said.

Who is most likely to become severely ill with COVID-19?

Severe illness is much more common among the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, especially conditions that weaken the immune system or affect the lungs. In both China and the United States, more than 80 percent of deaths occurred among people older than 60 or 65.

But while younger people are less likely to die, they still can get sick enough to need a hospital stay. A recent review of US data found that 20 percent of those who were hospitalized were age 20 to 44.

People with health conditions are at greater risk, but otherwise healthy people have also had it bad.

Why do some previously healthy people suffer severe illness while others get by with mild symptoms?

No one knows.

“There’s no rhyme or reason as to who gets sick, how sick they get, or what the course of their illness will be,” Thomas said.

It’s a mystery even for well-known infectious diseases like influenza, Kuritzkes and Boucher said. Every year, healthy young people end up in the hospital, felled by flu, and some even die.


“We don’t understand why a particular person ends up with much more severe disease when they don’t have any of the risk factors," Kuritzkes said. "We’re still trying to understand this for the flu; we certainly don’t understand it for coronavirus.”

If a member of my household is sick with COVID-19 or a suspected case, how can I protect myself?

“That can be a really tough situation,” Kuritzkes said.

As much as possible, you need to isolate the sick person and keep their germs from spreading. That means the sick person stays in a separate room, and if possible uses a separate bathroom from the rest of the household. Don’t share items like dishes, towels, or bedding. Disinfect all surfaces and wash your hands often. The sick person should wear a mask when they leave his or her room.

If the sick person needs your care, wear a mask when you are near, don’t touch your face, and be sure wash your hands afterward.

The CDC provides detailed directions.

In an op-ed in Tuesday’s USA Today Joseph Allen and Mark Lipsitch of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recommend additional measures, including: open the windows to bring in fresh air to dilute airborne virus particles; run an air purifier in the sick person’s room; run a humidifier because viruses prefer low humidity; and close the toilet lid before flushing and run exhaust fans in bathrooms to reduce airborne virus from feces.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.