Medicine Cabinet Essentials During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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  • If you develop coronavirus symptoms, such as fever and coughing, you should be prepared to treat the virus at home. Most people who contract the COVID-19 virus won’t require medical support or hospitalization, so they’ll need to cope at home—much the way people practice self-care for the common cold, influenza, or even seasonal allergies. You can treat your symptoms and keep yourself as comfortable as possible by stocking your medicine cabinet with these essential medicines and supplies for coronavirus symptoms and other common illnesses.

  • 1
    Thermometer
    Close up of woman's hand holding thermometer

    The first indicator of any illness often is fever, and you must be able to measure your body’s temperature in order to understand how serious the illness is or whether you (or your child) requires urgent medical attention. Use a modern digital thermometer of any type: under the tongue, in the ear, forehead scan, plastic strip, or pacifier thermometer. A temperature above 99.5°F is considered a fever. Take your temperature every four hours and record the results. 

    Contact a healthcare provider for unexplained fever in an adult, child or infant.

  • 2
    Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
    Close-up of acetaminophen tablets

    A key sign of a coronavirus infection is a fever, so you should have medicine on hand to treat your elevated temperature. Children should never take aspirin products to bring down a fever, as these medicines can cause Reye’s syndrome. Some doctors say adults also should not take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen, to fight coronavirus fever. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises there is no scientific evidence NSAIDs worsen COVID-19 symptoms.) Instead, everyone should take acetaminophen. This medication lowers a fever without damping down the immune system’s inflammatory response to fight off the virus. If you routinely take anti-inflammatory medication, contact your doctor for guidance on how to treat a fever.

  • 3
    Antihistamine
    pink, 25 milligram diphenhydramine antihistamine pills from medicine bottle

    Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help dry up excessive mucus caused by many illnesses, including the common cold. You also can use an antihistamine to treat mild allergic reactions, including nasal allergies and skin rashes. Taking an antihistamine can help you breathe better at night if clogged nasal passages make it difficult to sleep. Diphenhydramine also causes drowsiness, which can further promote good sleep. If the drowsiness of diphenhydramine bothers you, you can choose a non-drowsy antihistamine like loratadine (Claritin) instead.

  • 4
    Decongestant
    round tablets in blister pack on doctor table or pharmacy counter

    Decongestants like pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine reduce swelling inside the nasal passages to allow air to pass through. When you have a cold, influenza, or COVID-19, a decongestant can help you breathe more easily. While both pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are available without a prescription, you may have to ask your pharmacist to dispense pseudoephedrine from behind the counter, as this drug is regulated. Many oral decongestants can elevate your blood pressure. If you are already taking medication for high blood pressure be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist regarding safe choices. 

    Don’t combine a decongestant pill with a multi-symptom “cold and flu” product, as those products often contain a decongestant too.

  • 5
    Multi-Symptom Cough, Cold and Flu Medicine
    Cough Syrup

    To make medicating your case of coronavirus easier, you can stock your medicine cabinet with a multi-symptom cough, cold and flu medicine. These products come in liquid form, for easy swallowing with a sore throat, and in liquid-filled gelcaps (softgels). If the product you choose contains acetaminophen, do not take additional acetaminophen, as this can damage your liver. Using a multi-symptom product means taking fewer individual pills, which is especially helpful for treating children.

  • 6
    Guaifenesin
    ill woman with face mask coughing so she doesn't spread illness to others

    Sold under the brand name Mucinex and in products that often contain the term “tussin” in their names, guaifenesin is a drug that thins mucus and makes it easier to expel (cough out). This can be especially helpful for coronavirus treatment, since COVID-19 generally causes a good deal of lung congestion. You should not take guaifenesin separately if you’re already taking a multi-symptom product that contains it. Keeping guaifenesin in your medicine cabinet allows you to treat symptoms from many types of respiratory infections, including influenza.

  • 7
    Gastrointestinal Remedies
    holding oral tablets

    Although the coronavirus causes a respiratory infection and only a small percentage of people report gastrointestinal symptoms, the high fever the virus produces—along with generally eating anything that makes you feel better—can cause GI upset. Be prepared for this possibility by keeping a variety of medications in your cabinet to treat excess stomach acid (antacids), diarrhea (anti-diarrheal drugs), constipation (laxatives), and bloating (anti-gas caplets). Some of these drugs come in liquid form, others as pills or caplets. For constipation, choose a stool-softening drug like docusate instead of a stimulant-based laxative, because that type can cause abdominal cramps.

  • 8
    Pediatric Electrolyte Replacement Beverage
    Overhead view of orange drink in glass

    Many people become dehydrated during an illness like coronavirus, and dehydration makes it harder for the immune system to work effectively. People can become dehydrated from a virus due to excessive sweating during the fever phase, or simply from sleeping for hours (and not drinking water). Small bodies carry less fluid volume, so younger children are more prone to difficulty with sudden fluid losses. Additionally, dehydration alters the body’s normal electrolyte balance, so keep a pediatric electrolyte replacement product (Pedialyte) on hand for children and adults alike. These drinks help a person rehydrate and rebalance vital electrolytes to aid immune system function.

  • 9
    First Aid Supplies
    Overhead view of first aid kid items on white background

    Your medicine cabinet should always contain an adequately stocked first aid kit. Fever, dehydration, and lack of sleep from coughing or congestion may make a sick person more prone to injury due to fainting or diminished decision-making capacity (such as, burning your hand because you didn’t realize the pan’s handle was hot). Keep antibiotic ointment, cold packs, bandages, and other first aid supplies in your medicine cabinet to treat these other potential effects of a serious illness like coronavirus.

    If possible, request a 90-day supply of all your prescription medicines from your doctor. It will be one less thing you have to think about while waiting out the coronavirus crisis. 

    Recovering from an illness at home when you can, but checking in with your doctor or your child’s pediatrician, will help reduce your exposure to contagious diseases and free up your doctor’s time to care for seriously ill patients.

  • 10
    Pulse Oximeter
    oximeter for checking oxygen saturation in blood on male hand

    A pulse oximeter is a handheld device that estimates the percentage of hemoglobin in your blood saturated with oxygen, or SpO2. A normal SpO2 is 95 to 100%. Readings at or below 92% indicate hypoxemia—the blood is not carrying enough oxygen to all your organs and tissues. High altitude, asthma, and lung disease can cause low SpO2. In many people who have become sick with COVID-19 and develop pneumonia, SpO2 is lower than normal—even before the symptoms of hypoxemia develop, such as shortness of breath, headache, and confusion. If you develop COVID-19 symptoms like cough or fever, a low SpO2 may signal something more serious is going on and you should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. You can buy pulse oximeters online at pharmacies.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jun 15
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  3. Decongestants: OTC Relief for Congestion. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/decongestants-otc-relief-for-congestion/
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  6. FDA
advises patients on use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for
COVID-19. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-advises-patients-use-non-steroidal-anti-inflammatory-drugs-nsaids-covid-19 
  1. Uncertainty Surrounds Use of OTC Anti-Inflammatory Drugs in Patients With COVID-19. Pharmacy Times.https://www.pharmacytimes.com/news/uncertainty-surrounds-use-of-otc-anti-inflammatory-drugs-in-patients-with-covid-19
  2. Hypoxemia. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/hypoxemia/basics/when-to-see-doctor/sym-20050930
  3. Coronavirus FAQS: What's A Pulse Oximeter? Is It A Good Idea To Buy One? Npr.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/05/01/848400469/coronavirus-faqs-whats-a-pulse-oximeter-is-it-a-good-idea-to-buy-one