Frequently Asked Questions

This page is being reviewed for updates. The Washington State Department of Health has updated its guidance for what to do if you are sick with COVID-19 or were exposed to COVID-19. This page may have content that is inconsistent with the new guidance.

COVID-19 Basics

What is COVID-19?
  • COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. 
  • Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses usually cause mild respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. Other coronaviruses can cause severe illness, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
  • Most people with COVID-19 will experience only a mild respiratory illness (or even no symptoms at all). However, some people can get very sick and require hospitalization or even die from COVID-19.  Older people and people with chronic illnesses are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19.
How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out very small particles that contain the virus. Other people can breathe in these particles and become infected. If a person with COVID-19 is talking, singing, coughing, or sneezing, this can make it easier for the particles to spread to another person. A person might also get infected if these particles get into their mucous membranes (e.g., eyes) through a splash or spray (such as being coughed on) or touch. These particles can also contaminate surfaces they touch, but we think it is uncommon for COVID-19 to spread in this way. More information about when a person is contagious with COVID-19 can be found in What to do if you test positive for COVID-19 (

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms often appear sooner with Omicron subvariants, such as 3-4 days after exposure to the virus. Some people who have COVID-19 do not have symptoms. People with these symptoms or combinations of symptoms might have COVID-19:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Fatigue
  • Other less common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
What should I do if I or someone in my household has COVID-19 symptoms?

Stay home and get tested for COVID-19 or see a healthcare provider. Follow the guidance in COVID-19 Decision Trees for the General Public. People with COVID-19 should isolate and talk with their healthcare provider to determine if they are eligible for treatment.

We have guidance available for people who have or think they may have COVID-19:

What is the treatment?

If you are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, treatments are available that can reduce your chances of being hospitalized or dying from the disease. Medications to treat COVID-19 must be prescribed by a healthcare provider and started as soon as possible after diagnosis to be effective. Contact a healthcare provider right away to determine if you are eligible for treatment, even if your symptoms are mild right now. Visit the DOH webpage for more information for you and your health care provider on specific COVID-19 treatments and how to access treatment. 

How can I protect myself and others?

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19:

  • Stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.
  • When you are sick, stay home and get tested for COVID-19
  • Wear a face mask when you are sick and around others (such as after completing 5 days of isolation), if you have been exposed to COVID-19, and when CDC COVID-19 hospital admission level is high. You can find more information about mask recommendations at Masks and Face Coverings
  • Spend time in well-ventilated spaces when possible, such as outside or indoors with open windows or adequate filtration.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water aren't available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
  • Follow recommendations from your local health department.
How much COVID-19 is there in my community?

There are several tools for tracking how much COVID-19 is in your community, which impacts how likely you are to be exposed to COVID-19. DOH recommends using CDC COVID-19 hospital admission levels to inform your decision about when to wear a mask indoors in public and non-healthcare settings. You can also track COVID-19 in your community using the DOH Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard.

Where can I find information about face coverings and masks?

Learn about our state’s guidance for when to wear masks.

Can I travel?

Follow all CDC travel requirements and recommendations. Check for any travel restrictions that state, local, or territorial governments may have in place.

You and Your Family

How can I protect myself if I’m immunocompromised or at higher risk of getting very sick?

People who are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including additional doses, are at lower risk of severe illness, hospitalization, or death from COVID-19. However, there are prevention steps that people who are immunocompromised or at high risk of getting very sick can take. 

People who are moderately to severely immunocompromised, who might have an inadequate immune response to COVID-19 vaccines, or who have contraindications to getting COVID-19 vaccines should:

  • Minimize or avoid contact with people who have respiratory virus symptoms and people who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days.
  • Wear a well-fitting and high-quality mask and maintain physical distance from others if it is not possible to avoid crowded indoor spaces.
  • Consider wearing well-fitting masks or respirators in health care facilities even if masking is not required by a health care facility.

Any or all of these steps can be taken any time you want to reduce your risk of infection from respiratory viruses, including influenza and RSV as well as COVID-19. 

In addition, CDC COVID-19 hospital admission levels can help you make informed decisions about prevention strategies based on the activity of COVID-19 in your area. 

  • When COVID-19 hospital admission level is medium or high in your area, we recommend that people who are at high risk of getting very sick wear a mask indoors in public. People at high risk of getting very sick can also ask household or social contacts to consider self-testing to detect infection before being near each other and to consider wearing a mask when indoors with them. 
  • When COVID-19 hospital admission level is high in your area, people at high risk of getting very sick should consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed.

You can find information about additional prevention measures in Information for Persons Who Are Immunocompromised Regarding Prevention and Treatment of SARS-CoV-2 Infection in the Context of Currently Circulating Omicron Sublineages and People Who Are Immunocompromised | CDC. You may also want to speak to your health care provider when making a COVID-19 plan.

What should I know if I'm pregnant?

People who are pregnant may be at greater risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and should do what they can to stay healthy and avoid getting COVID-19. For more information see COVID-19, Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Breastfeeding: Answers From Ob-Gyns | ACOG and COVID-19 Vaccines While Pregnant or Breastfeeding | CDC. 


What should I know about COVID-19 and my pets?

The virus that causes COVID-19 can spread from people to animals during close contact.  Because of this, people with COVID-19 and in home isolation should avoid direct contact with pets, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.   If an animal becomes sick, contact a veterinarian. Additional information is available here: What You Should Know about COVID-19 and Pets | Healthy Pets, Healthy People | CDC

Where can I learn about Long COVID?

You can find information on the DOH Long COVID webpage

Getting Tested

Should I get tested?

See our Testing for COVID-19 webpage.

What is a close contact?

A close contact is someone who was within six feet of one or more persons with COVID-19 for at least 15 total minutes over a 24-hour period during the time the person with COVID-19 was able to spread the virus. However, if a person has been in situations that increase the risk of potential exposure, such as confined spaces, poor ventilation, or performing activities such as shouting or singing, there is still a risk of infection even if they are more than 6 feet away from the person with COVID-19. 

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