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About coronaviruses

6-minute read

IMPORTANT: If you have severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately and tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival about your recent travel history and any close contact with a person with confirmed COVID-19.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

The rest of this page contains only general information about coronaviruses. Go here for healthcare advice on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses form a large family of viruses that can cause a range of illnesses. These include the common cold as well as more serious diseases like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and the more recent coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Coronaviruses have been around for many years and as a result, humans have built up a general immunity to them. This means when we do get a common cold, it is usually not very severe.

However, coronaviruses are not just present in humans. Many animals also have coronavirus-related illnesses and sometimes those viruses can mutate and be passed on to humans. When this happens, the disease can be more severe because the human body has not had to fight this illness before. Both the SARS and MERS diseases are examples of this happening in recent years.

When a new strain of coronavirus is discovered, it is called a ‘novel' coronavirus.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms of COVID-19 include:

Most people who are infected with COVID-19 experience a mild to moderate respiratory illness.

How is COVID-19 transmitted or how does the coronavirus spread?

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 spreads between people through:

  • direct contact such as by touching each other
  • indirect contact such as by touching contaminated objects or surfaces. When people with the virus sneeze, cough or touch surfaces, they may leave infected droplets on these surfaces
  • close contact through mouth or nose secretions of infected people. These secretions are released from the mouth or nose of an infected person when they cough, sneeze, speak or sing.

To avoid contact with these droplets, it is important to:

  • maintain physical distance by staying at least 1.5 metres away from others
  • clean your hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • cover your mouth with a tissue or bent elbow when sneezing or coughing
  • clean surfaces regularly.

Aerosol transmission

Some medical procedures make patients distribute very small droplets or aerosols that can stay suspended in the air for long periods of time.

If people infected with COVID-19 undergo these procedures, these aerosols can contain the coronavirus.

It is essential that health workers performing these medical procedures use appropriate PPE. Visitors should not be permitted in areas where such medical procedures occur.

There have been reports that some COVID-19 outbreaks have begun indoors, such as at restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship or workplaces where people talk, shout or sing. It is possible that people transmitted the virus via aerosols in these spaces, particularly if these spaces were crowded and inadequately ventilated, and infected people spent long periods of time in them.

However, we need more studies to better understand how the coronavirus spreads indoors.

When can infected people transmit the virus?

Infected people can transmit the virus when they have or do not have symptoms.

People mainly transmit COVID-19 when they have symptoms. But people can also spread it just before they develop symptoms when they are near other people for longer periods of time.

Source: How is COVID-19 transmitted?

What are the different tests available for COVID-19?

There are two types of tests available for COVID-19:

  • the diagnostic test, using RT-PCR (Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction)
  • the serology test, otherwise known as the antibody test.

In diagnostic tests, a COVID-19 infection is diagnosed by finding genetic material of the virus in respiratory samples, such as swabs from the back of the nose and throat, or fluid from the lungs.

Serology or antibody tests involve taking blood samples to look for antibodies. Antibodies can show if the person had a past infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

How is COVID-19 treated?

There’s no specific treatment or cure for people who have COVID-19. However, if you become unwell with COVID-19, you'll be treated for your symptoms and monitored for complications.

How do I avoid catching COVID-19?

The Australian Government requires you to practise good hygiene. It’s essential to keep your hands clean – especially outside your home — and to cover your cough or sneeze.

It’s also crucial to practise physical distancing.

You need to make sure you:

  • wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use an alcohol based hand sanitiser
  • cover your cough and sneeze, dispose of tissues and wash your hands immediately
  • regularly clean and disinfect surfaces you use often such as benchtops and door handles
  • avoid contact with others outside your household and stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people as much as possible, and avoid crowded places
  • avoid contact with people who are unwell with cold or flu-like symptoms
  • stay home if you are unwell
  • avoid touching your face or shaking hands with other people.

The government has also set limits on how many people can gather indoors and outdoors, and police in your state or territory will enforce these limits.

Who is at risk of COVID-19 infection?

People who are close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19 are most at risk of infection. Travellers who’ve been overseas recently, or have been passengers on a cruise ship, are also at higher risk.

You're also at risk of COVID-19 infection if you live, work or have spent time in one of these high-risk settings:

  • Aged care and residential care facilities
  • Healthcare settings
  • Group residential settings such as: naval ships or military accommodation; boarding schools or houses; correctional facilities and detention centres; and remote industrial sites with accommodation (mines, for example)
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rural and remote communities
  • Settings where known COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring
  • Schools and childcare centres.

Schools and childcare centres are high-risk environments if there is an outbreak due to the nature of activities that take place in these settings.

To best protect staff, children and parents, please refer to your state and local school district’s most recent policy on school or childcare availability. As each community experiences different impacts from COVID-19, it is important to listen to local and current advice.

What is being done to manage the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak?

Information about the Australian response to COVID-19 is provided on the Department of Health website and is updated daily.

The Australian Government’s health response to the COVID-19 outbreak aims to:

  • minimise the number of people becoming infected or sick with COVID-19
  • minimise how sick people become
  • minimise the mortality rate
  • manage the demand on our health systems
  • help you to manage your own risk and the risk to others, your family and community.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading further through international travel, the Australian Government is:

  • enforcing travel restrictions
  • screening all international travellers who arrive in Australia and ensuring they self-isolate on arrival
  • continuing with border surveillance.

State and territory health authorities are:

  • testing people suspected of having the virus
  • monitoring close contacts of confirmed cases daily
  • imposing travel restrictions between states
  • opening fever clinics.


SA Health (Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia in Wuhan, China)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2020

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