COVID-19 FAQ: What You Need to Know About Over-the-Counter Medicines & Dietary Supplements

Health officials across the country are responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus, called COVID-19. There are certain things you should know about the disease, how to protect yourself, as well as information on how to safely use over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and dietary supplements during the pandemic.

Frequently Asked Questions

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a new coronavirus discovered in 2019. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

Get the latest information on COVID-19 at: www.coronavirus.gov

According to the CDC, older adults, people with medical conditions, and pregnant and recently pregnant people seem to be more likely than others to become severely ill from COVID-19. Severe illness means that a person with COVID-19 may need hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe.

People at increased risk, and those who live or visit with them, need to take precautions to protect themselves from getting COVID-19.

People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms – ranging from mild to severe as shown below. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

This list does not include all possible symptoms.

Although children are at a lower risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19 compared with adults, children can:

  • Be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19
  • Get very sick from COVID-19
  • Have both short and long-term health complications from COVID-19
  • Spread COVID-19 to others

Children with underlying medical conditions are more at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared with children without underlying medical conditions. Children who get infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 can also develop serious complications like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) – a condition where different body parts become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. Contact your child’s doctor, nurse, or clinic right away if your child is showing symptoms of MIS-C:

  • Ongoing fever PLUS more than one of the following: stomach pain, bloodshot eyes, diarrhea, dizziness or lightheadedness (signs of low blood pressure), skin rash, vomiting.

Be aware that not all children will have all the same symptoms.

While most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home, CDC’s website features an interactive symptom checker to help you make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care.

Look for emergency warning signs* for COVID-19. If someone is showing any of these signs, seek emergency medical care immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

*This list is not all possible symptoms. Please call your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning to you.

Allergies

The major difference between allergies and COVID-19 is the presence of fever. A fever is a main symptom of COVID-19, but not a common symptom related to allergies. Another major distinction is that allergies will likely cause itchiness, while COVID-19 will not.

If you are experiencing symptoms, the best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to speak with your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you should be tested for the disease.

For more information on the different symptoms related to COVID-19 and allergies, check out this summary chart.

Cold or Flu

The symptoms of COVID-19 could be similar to a cold or flu, including fever, cough, and body aches or fatigue. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, some patients with COVID-19 have also experienced gastrointestinal problems or diarrhea.

If you are experiencing symptoms, the best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to speak with your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you should be tested for the disease and/or the flu or other infections.

For more information on the different symptoms related to COVID-19, a cold, or the flu, check out this summary chart

COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, nose, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected.

There are some things you can do to keep you and your loved ones from being exposed to the virus:

  1. Get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available for people ages 5 years and older. In most cases, you do not need an appointment. Learn how to find a COVID-19 vaccine so you can get vaccinated as soon as you can. All currently approved or authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and reduce your risk of severe illness. CDC does not recommend one vaccine over another. They have been evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials and meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support approval or authorization of a vaccine. Based on what CDC knows about COVID-19 vaccines, people who have been fully vaccinated can do things that they had stopped doing because of the pandemic. In areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated. You should also continue to wear a mask where required by laws, rules, regulations, or local guidance.
  2. If you are not fully vaccinated, and 2 or older, you should wear a mask in indoor public places that covers your nose and mouth. In general, you do not need to wear a mask in outdoor settings. However, in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.
  3. Stay 6 feet away from others. Limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. When inside your home, avoid close contact with people who are sick. If possible, maintain 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) between the person who is sick and other household members. When outside your home, put 6 feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in your household. Remember that some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus. Keeping distance from others is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
  4. Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. Being in crowds like restaurants, bars, fitness centers, or movie theaters puts you at higher risk for COVID-19. Avoid indoor spaces that do not offer fresh air from the outdoors as much as possible. If indoors, bring in fresh air by opening windows and doors, if possible.
  5. Wash your hands – and often – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to not use certain hand sanitizers that have been recalled because they contain toxic and unacceptable ingredients, such as methanol. FDA maintains a list on its website of hand sanitizers to not use. Additionally, FDA is warning the public about alcohol-based hand sanitizers that are being packaged in containers that may appear as food or drinks – causing confusion that may lead people to accidentally ingest hand sanitizer and putting them at risk of serious injury or death. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  6. Cover coughs and sneezes. If you are wearing a mask, you can cough or sneeze into your mask. Put on a new, clean mask as soon as possible and wash your hands. If you are not wearing a mask, always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you chough or sneeze, or use the inside of your elbow and do not spit. Throw used tissues in the trash. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, clean your hands with a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  7. Clean and disinfect high touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks. If someone is sick or has tested positive for COVID-19, disinfect frequently touched surfacesIf surfaces are dirty, clean them using detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.
  8. Monitor your health daily. Watch for fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19. This is especially important if you are running essential errands, going into the office or workplace, and in settings where it may be difficult to keep a physical distance of 6 feet. Take your temperature if symptoms develop, and follow CDC guidance.

Additionally, it’s important to remember to ALWAYS keep your medicines up and away and out of sight and reach of young children. Doing so will help prevent children from accidentally getting a hold of medicines and ingesting them.

The same goes for hand sanitizer, as accidentally ingesting even a small amount can cause alcohol poisoning in children. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that during the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to Poison Control related to hand sanitizer have increased by 79%. Therefore, it is very important to store hand sanitizer out of sight and reach and monitor children when they are using hand sanitizer.

Check out this parent’s checklist to keep your kids safe during the coronavirus.

It’s important to maintain current drug therapies and ensure you have the appropriate treatments at home if you or your family members are sick. Remember most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home.

For necessary prescription medications, we recommend contacting your doctor or other healthcare professional to see if you can get a larger supply of your medicines so you do not have to visit the pharmacy as often. To limit in-person visits to the pharmacy, try to plan to order and pick up all your prescriptions at the same time. When possible, use drive-thru windows, curbside services (wait in your car until your prescription is ready), mail-order, or other delivery services.

It’s important to also have over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and medical supplies on-hand, including:

  • Fever-reducing medicines that contain the active ingredient acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Chest decongestant medicines that contain the active ingredient guaifenesin
  • Cough suppressant medicines that contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan or menthol
  • Antidiarrheal medicines that contain the active ingredient bismuth subsalicylate or loperamide
  • Cough drops
  • Thermometer
  • Face masks that cover the nose and mouth – such as home improvement masks, bandannas, or scarves

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) allows consumers enrolled in pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), certain Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to purchase most OTC medicines without a need for a prescription through their accounts – depending on what their employer’s plan documents allow. We recommend that you save your OTC medicine receipts and reach out to your HSA, FSA or HRA provider to learn more about eligibility. This provision is retroactive to January 1, 2020.

Be sure to keep all medicines up and away and out of sight and reach of your children, to help prevent accidental ingestions. Avoid an accident with these safe medicine storage tips.

While research supports the use of certain dietary supplements to maintain healthy immune system responses, there are no studies that demonstrate dietary supplements can prevent or treat COVID-19. Also, be aware that no dietary supplement may claim to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. Consumers should avoid products that suggest they do. All direction for preventing and/or treating COVID-19 should come from a qualified healthcare professional or public health authority. If you have questions about taking dietary supplements, please talk to your doctor.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, like those containing acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can be used to temporarily reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pains, including pain following a vaccination.

There is no research to date that specifically looks at whether OTC pain relievers can interfere with how well the COVID-19 vaccines work. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who experience discomfort after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination speak with their doctor about taking an OTC pain reliever.

CDC does not recommend taking OTC pain relievers before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine as an attempt to prevent soreness or muscle aches following the injection.

Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, are indicated and labeled under the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to temporarily reduce fever and relieve minor aches and pains. Acetaminophen is also indicated and labeled for this purpose.

Recent reports have questioned whether using NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, could lead to poorer outcomes when infected with COVID-19. However, FDA recently stated that it is “not aware of scientific evidence connecting the use of NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, to worsening COVID-19 symptoms,” and is investigating the issue.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also states that there is “no known evidence” that ibuprofen worsens symptoms of COVID-19, and “does not recommend against the use of ibuprofen.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also currently not aware of scientific evidence establishing a link between NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen) and worsening of COVID‑19.

You should always read and follow the Drug Facts label on all OTC medicines to determine safe and appropriate use and speak with a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have any questions about which OTC medicine is right for you.

Millions of Americans deal with frequent heartburn which interferes with daily life and should not be ignored. When deciding how to self-treat frequent heartburn, OTC proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are an appropriate option. OTC PPIs are indicated and labeled for once-daily use, for a maximum of 14 days every four months.

Recent reports have questioned whether using PPIs increases a person’s risk for COVID-19, however, the few studies have only been observational, results have been mixed, and no causal relationship has been proven. OTC medicines, including PPIs, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and each OTC medicine has a clear Drug Facts label to help consumers understand what it is used for, to ensure proper dosing and duration of use, and to avoid drug interactions. Any severe or persistent symptoms should be immediately reported to a healthcare professional. Learn more about PPIs.