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, or coronavirus disease 2019, is the official name for the disease that is causing the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic. It is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans.

COVID-19 is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly cause mild illness, like the common cold. It is believed to spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation. Get the latest information at: COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation. Get the latest information at: www.coronavirus.gov

Common symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe. People with these symptoms or combinations of symptoms may have COVID-19:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Or at least two of these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

Children infected with COVID-19 will likely have similar symptoms to adults and generally have mild illness. Children infected with COVID-19 will likely have similar symptoms to adults and generally have mild illness. The CDC has also connected COVID-19 with a very rare but serious health condition called Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). Symptoms of MIS-C can include persistent fever, a rash or changes in skin color, red eyes or conjunctivitis, abdominal pain, and swollen lymph nodes. If parents notice any of these symptoms, they should immediately call their pediatrician.

Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. 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.

If you develop any of the emergency warning signs below for COVID-19, it is important to seek medical attention immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

This list is not inclusive, and you should consult your doctor or other healthcare professional for any symptoms that are severe or concerning.

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.

Allergy season can add to the confusion when determining if you have symptoms of COVID-19. 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.

According to the CDC, older adults and people of any age with serious underlying medical conditions – including high blood pressure, heart problems, or diabetes – may be at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

While there is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, there are some things you can do to keep you and your loved ones from being exposed to the virus:

  1. Know how it spreads – the virus is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person. Some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus. The CDC is still learning about how the virus spreads and the severity of illness it causes.
  2. Wash your hands – and often – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  3. Avoid close contact – both with people who are sick inside your home and with people when you are outside of your home. Some people without symptoms may still be able to spread the virus. The CDC recommends staying at least 6 feet away (about 2 arms’ length) from other people. Do not gather in groups and avoid mass gatherings and crowded places.
  4. Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others – to protect other people in case you are infected. Remember, you could spread COVID-19 to others even if you do not feel sick. Everyone should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public. Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. Continue to keep about 6 feet between yourself and others. The cloth mask is not a substitute for social distancing.
  5. Avoid touching your face, and make sure to cough and sneeze into a tissue (throw into the trash) or into your arm/elbow, not your hands.
  6. Stay home if you’re sick, except to get medical care. Do not visit public areas. You should wear a cloth face covering, over your nose and mouth if you must be around other people or animals, including pets (even at home). You don’t need to wear the cloth face covering if you are alone. If you can’t put on a cloth face covering (because of trouble breathing, for example), cover your coughs and sneezes in some other way. Try to stay at least 6 feet away from other people.
  7. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, etc.

Additionally, with families staying home right now and potentially stocking up on medicines, it’s important to remember to ALWAYS keep your medicines up and away and out of sight and reach of your children. Doing so will help prevent your 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 obtain them to have on hand in case there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in your community and you need to stay home for an extended period of time. Additionally, some pharmacies, including mail-order ones, allow you to automatically refill your prescriptions, sometimes for 90 days at a time; some pharmacies are now also offering home delivery of prescription medications at no charge.

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.

For more helpful information on how to prepare for COVID-19, including a household checklist, visit CDC’s website.

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) 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.

There are several convenient options to dispose of all over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, including in your home. Follow these simple steps from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to safely rid of OTCs in your household trash:

  1. Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as kitty litter or used coffee grounds.
  2. Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
  3. Throw the container in your household trash.

For specific information on disposal of prescription medications, including which ones should be flushed, go to the FDA’s website.