Although many pieces of survival knowledge have limited application during “normal” times, knowing how to setup a sick room is quite useful even today. It helps caregivers by giving them a quiet, isolated area to work in when helping their patient and helps everyone else by keeping infectious substances (and people!) far away from healthy people. If used properly and well-stocked with supplies, a good sick room can do a great deal to prevent the spread of disease while still allowing you to care for the sick properly.
Disclaimer: I don’t work for the CDC, WHO, or any kind of hospital. These are just general care tips, and you should consult with professionals for any kind of specific details on caring for the sick. In particular, be careful with medications and ensure that you follow label directions and the instructions from your doctor regarding dosage. Make sure kids do not have access to bleach or medications, since they may not realize the danger until it is too late.
What makes a good sick room
There are 3 primary goals to achieve with your sick room:
- Minimize the risk of infection for everyone in the home.
- Keep the patient as comfortable as possible while still being properly cared for.
- Make it easy for caregivers to disinfect surfaces and work to care for the patient.
As such, an ideal sick room should be located in an isolated area of the house away from community bathrooms and food preparation areas. It should also have minimal cloth furniture, carpets or rugs, or even curtains on the windows in order to make it easier to scrub surfaces clean. Since many people tend to use bedrooms as a sick room, make sure you remove any couches or other furniture before settling your patient in the room! Solid surfaces and plastics can be left in the room, since they can act as helpful side tables to hold extra supplies.
If possible try to allow for air circulation to the outside without needing to spread it through other rooms in the house first. A window is perfect for this, with a fan to help push things along if electricity is still on. This helps reduce the amount of garbage floating in the air and also helps alleviate cabin fever somewhat by introducing the smell of outside air into the room.
Supplies to keep stocked
One point to keep in mind with this list: all of the items in the sick room shouldn’t leave it until the illness has passed and they can be properly disinfected. As such, you wouldn’t want your only bottle of aspirin pills or your box of tissues to be in there if you lack backups for general use by the healthy people. When you’re looking through this list to decide what might be good to stock up on, know that you may need extras beyond what you already have just to ensure that they stay clean before use and aren’t needed once they’re in the sick room. For a look at medical supplies for a sickroom on the run, look to our article on gear for survival.
With that in mind, here’s a list of some general items you’ll want in any good sick room:
- Clean sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. These are really the only non-disposable cloths you want in the sickroom. If you want to minimize the chance of later infection, I would recommend covering the bed in a plastic sheet over the sheets at least.
- Clean, soft towels. These will be used for drying, washing, and a variety of tasks that might be unsuitable for paper towels.
- Disinfecting wipes. These will see a great deal of use for wiping and re-wiping down things like doorknobs, tabletops, and just about anything else a sick person or caregiver touches.
- A dedicated set of cups, bowls, plates, and cutlery for the sick person to use. These will never be used by healthy people for the duration of the illness and will be frequently disinfected so pick durable items.
- Bleach. This can be diluted into a cleansing solution for many purposes.
- OTC medications that treat general symptoms. Anti-headache, fever, sore-throat, inflammation, and other common ailment remedies should be ready and on hand for any adult who needs them. If you have kids sick have a place where they can be kept locked away in the room if possible to prevent accidental overdosing.
- Measuring spoons/cups for liquid medication. If all of your meds are pills or come with their own measuring cup this may be unneeded. If one is required, mark it so that it is never used for cooking until it can be thoroughly disinfected.
- A 5 gallon bucket or two with lids. These can be used as cleanable trash cans with or without plastic trash bags to line them. They can also be used as a makeshift waste container in a pinch.
- Anti-bacterial alcohol-based hand soaps. Purell is one well known brand, and these will be needed for rapid disinfection of hands by the patient and by caregivers.
- Nitrile disposable gloves. If no one in your family is allergic to latex you can also use those, but remember that treating any new person will require knowledge of their allergies beforehand. You’ll be burning through these by the dozen, so at least two boxes are recommended as a bare minimum.
- N95 Respirator masks for both caregivers and the patient. Since the patient is the truly infectious one, it’s particularly important that they wear one when they’re being cared for or come close to any healthy person.
- Trash bags. These allow you to save the 5 gallon buckets for truly nasty stuff. Be sure to always be cautious when carrying the bags out, and place them somewhere separate until they can be disinfected and/or disposed of properly.
- Dedicated outer coverings for caregivers. These can include aprons or smocks, a rain poncho, or anything else that can be left in the room for the duration of the illness. These should be easy to remove and preferably easy to clean once you’re finished.
- A few pens/pencils, paper and a clipboard for writing down important information or just posting reminders for caregivers/patients.
- A noisemaking device to signal for assistance in case the person is too sick to yell.
Proper Sickroom Protocol
The first and foremost concern is to minimize the spread of disease as much as possible. The first major step in this is to limit visitors in the room to just the caregiver. Ideally, the caregiver will be the same person each day, though an extended illness may require that someone else step up to give people a break. If someone insists on visiting, maintain at least a 6 foot distance from the sick person at all times to prevent infected droplets from an incidental sneeze or cough from getting on the visitor.
For the caregiver, always wear all of the protective gear before entering and always remove every part of that gear before exiting the room. Every time you handle an infected item or get near the patient with your hands, you should take a few seconds to squeeze some hand sanitizer out to keep your hands nice and clean. Be careful to disinfect all surfaces at least once per visit aside from the bed linens/plastic sheeting, which should still be washed at least once every few days. Pay special attention to areas where bodily fluids and waste are deposited, or on door handles and other commonly touched surfaces such as the noisemaker. Take extreme care to ensure that nothing used in caring for the patient leaves the room, and try to perform a full-body wash as soon as possible after leaving the sick room.
Although it is not required, the caregiver should probably be the one to handle and pour out most medications just to ensure that someone who is all there mentally is doing the pouring. This is obviously a necessity in the case of children, who will not be able to handle that responsibility properly. If an adult elects to measure out his own medications, have him write down the med and the dosage before he takes it so that he has to take the time to think about it before ingesting whatever was in his hand.
Clothes and bedding should be washed after everyone else’s clothing is done, and bleach should be used if possible. If not, at least boil the water and aggressively scrub to kill or remove as much as possible from the bedding.
The patient mainly just needs to sleep and do what little he is able to assist the caregivers in caring for him. One thing he will need to do is to put on a N95 mask and wash his hands with hand sanitizer each time the caregiver comes in to help him in order to minimize the chance of spreading the illness to them.
And that about covers the basics of choosing, stocking, and using a sick room. Do this properly and you will greatly reduce the risk of spreading infections and diseases, plus give caregivers a better space to work.