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Symptoms of COVID-19 and how the virus spreads

14-minute read

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 to find out if you need to seek medical help.

What is the coronavirus and COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause respiratory infections.

The coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been detected in people before.

The virus was initially known as the ‘Novel Coronavirus (nCoV-2019)’, but it’s now officially named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The infectious disease caused by this virus is called COVID-19.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms of COVID-19 include:

Uncommon symptoms may also occur. These include chest pain, diarrhoea and conjunctivitis.

COVID-19 is a mild illness in approximately 80 per cent of cases — fever and cough are the most commonly reported symptoms. Children may experience milder symptoms than adults.

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

How severe is COVID-19?

Four out of 5 people infected with COVID-19 experience mild or moderate symptoms; however, in more severe cases breathing difficulties can develop into pneumonia.

People at most risk of serious infection include:

  • people 70 years of age or older
  • people who are 65 years or older with chronic medical conditions
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are 50 years or older with a chronic medical condition
  • those with compromised immune systems (such as people with cancer)

If you do need to visit your doctor, it is very important that you call before visiting, to describe your symptoms and travel history.

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.

How is COVID-19 different from the flu (influenza)?

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. The seasonal flu is caused by different types of influenza virus.

Both diseases are infections and can cause respiratory symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose and cough, as well as fever.

However, there are some differences:

  • Influenza often includes muscle pains and headache, while these symptoms are less common in COVID-19.
  • So far, severe COVID-19 has mainly affected older age groups and people with chronic illnesses, while severe cases of the flu can sometimes make healthy people, children and pregnant women very sick too.

VACCINATIONS — Find out how COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, how they work and when you might be eligible.

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

RESTRICTIONS — Use the COVID-19 Restriction Checker to find out what you can and can't do in your state or territory.

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 healthcare workers performing these medical procedures use appropriate PPE. Additionally, healthcare workers should not administer nebulisers and provide patients with spacers instead. 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 locations — particularly if they spent long periods of time in crowded and inadequately ventilated areas.

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 whether or not they 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.

For information on transmission from the World Health Organization, visit How is COVID-19 transmitted?

How soon after exposure to a COVID-19 case do symptoms appear?

The coronavirus’ incubation period, which is the time between when a person is exposed to the virus and when their symptoms first appear, ranges from 1 to 14 days. Most people develop symptoms 5 to 6 days after being in contact with a person with the coronavirus.

Australia’s national COVID-19 public health guidelines use a 14-day incubation period to inform many public health measures, such as quarantine and isolation.

Can a person transmit COVID-19 to others before symptoms appear?

Yes, it appears transmission can take place 1 to 3 days before any symptoms appear.

For how long can a person spread COVID-19 to other people?

Using a precautionary approach, cases are currently considered infectious from 48 hours before symptoms develop until they meet criteria for release from isolation.

How long can COVID-19 survive on surfaces?

It’s uncertain how long COVID-19 can survive on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. This means it can survive on surfaces for a few hours or, under some circumstances, for up to several days. This could depend on which type of surface it is, or on the temperature or level of humidity of the environment.

If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with a common household disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others. Wash your hands with soap and water or clean them with an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose.

What should I do if I develop COVID-19 symptoms?

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 an infected person.

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

If the Symptom Checker tells you to contact your GP, please make sure you call your doctor to describe your symptoms and contact with a confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) case. You can also attend a COVID-19 clinic in your area.

You can also call the Australian Government's National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080.

How is COVID-19 diagnosed?

Your doctor (GP), or the medical staff at a testing clinic or hospital emergency department may take swabs from the back of your nose and throat, or fluid from your lungs, to diagnose your illness. Swabs and fluid are sent to public health laboratories for testing for COVID-19.

Read more here about seeing a doctor and getting tested.

What is a 'confirmed case' of COVID-19?

A ‘confirmed case’ is a person who tests positive for COVID-19. This is a special test that needs to be done at a designated facility.

Who is a casual contact?

A casual contact is someone who’s been in the same setting as a confirmed case during their infectious period, but who does not meet the definition of a primary close contact.

At the discretion of the relevant public health unit, some casual contacts may be classified as primary close contacts. This classification may be relevant during efforts to control super spreading events where there’s evidence that the disease is transmitting to people who don’t meet the primary close contact definition — for example in restaurants, pubs and places of worship.

Casual contacts should be provided with information about their exposure — and the need to monitor for symptoms and seek testing if symptoms develop. Depending on the circumstances, they may be asked to attend for asymptomatic testing.

What should I do if I have been in close contact with a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection?

If you’ve been in close contact with someone who’s a confirmed case of COVID-19 — including close contact in the 48 hours before they became unwell — you must quarantine in your home for 14 days after your last contact with the confirmed case. Someone from your local public health unit will contact you. If you remain well after 14 days you can leave quarantine.

If you develop symptoms during this time, you must get tested for COVID-19. If you test positive, you must isolate. Anyone who's entered your household is a close contact and must quarantine.

If you test negative for COVID-19, you must complete quarantine and stay at home for the full 14-day quarantine period.

Living with other people while in quarantine

If you’re well, people you live with don’t need to quarantine unless they have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19. You should limit your contact with them as much as possible by:

  • staying in your own room
  • using a separate bathroom, if you can
  • staying at least 1.5 metres away from each other
  • avoiding common areas and wearing a mask when moving through these areas
  • wearing a mask when in the same room as each other
  • not sharing a room with people, especially those at risk of severe disease. This includes older people and those with heart, lung or kidney conditions, and diabetes
  • practising good hand hygiene and covering coughs and sneezes with a clean tissue that you dispose of immediately or the inside of your elbow, then washing your hands
  • avoiding sharing household items
  • frequently cleaning the house, especially things people touch often, like door handles

For more information, visit Search for ‘Quarantine for coronavirus (COVID-19)’ and scroll to ‘What is a close contact?’

What is a 'suspect case' of COVID-19?

A 'suspect case' is someone who:

  • has a fever (37.5 degrees Celsius or greater) or history of fever — such as night sweats and chills OR
  • has an acute respiratory infection — for example, cough, shortness of breath, and sore throat OR
  • has experienced a loss of smell or loss of taste.

AND within the 14 days before becoming unwell, the person:

  • was in close contact (face to face for more than 15 minutes in total over 1 week, or shared a space for 2 hours) with a confirmed case
  • travelled internationally
  • was a passenger or crew member on a cruise ship
  • worked in healthcare, aged or residential care — with direct patient contact
  • lived in, or travelled through, a geographically localised area with elevated risk of community transmission as defined by public health authorities

There are other symptoms of COVID-19, including:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • runny nose
  • diarrhoea
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite

It’s recommended that anyone experiencing symptoms seek medical attention. It’s up to the medical practice or testing clinic to decide whether you need to be tested for COVID-19, based on these criteria

How is COVID-19 treated?

There is no specific treatment for people who have COVID-19. Confirmed cases will be isolated to help avoid spreading the disease to others.

Early diagnosis and general supportive care are important. Most of the time, symptoms will go away on their own. People who have a serious infection, with complications such as pneumonia, can be cared for in hospital.

Are antibiotics required for COVID-19?

No, antibiotics are not effective against viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Unnecessary administration of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which is a serious healthcare problem that affects everyone.

In some patients who develop pneumonia, however, secondary bacterial pneumonia can occur. In this situation, antibiotics are usually required.

How long does a COVID-19 infection last?

The duration of a COVID-19 infection varies from person to person. If you are otherwise healthy, mild symptoms may go away after just a few days. If you have other health problems, such as a lung or heart condition, recovery may take weeks. In really severe cases, COVID-19 can be fatal.

Where did the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originate?

The first outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, a city in Hubei Province, China.

What areas of the world are being affected by COVID-19?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic and all regions around the world are impacted by the outbreak — including Australia.

Read about COVID-19 related travel restrictions here, or visit the Department of Health's website for local updates or the World Health Organization’s website to learn about the global situation.

Why has the name of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 changed?

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

The virus that causes COVID-19 used to be called ‘Novel Coronavirus nCoV-2019’ but has now been officially renamed SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The disease caused by the coronavirus was named COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) by the WHO. It was agreed that the name of the disease should make no reference to places, animals or people in order to avoid stigma or prejudice.

Looking for more information?

Visit healthdirect's COVID-19 information hub for more answers to questions about the coronavirus, or use these COVID-19 tools and resources:

RESTRICTIONS — Use the COVID-19 Restriction Checker to find out what you can and can't do in your state or territory.

VACCINATIONS — Find out how COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, how they work and when you might be eligible.

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

Resources in other languages

COVID-19 resources in other languages are available from the Department of Health, as well as from the ACT, NSW, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic and WA health departments.

Information is also available in Aboriginal languages (NT).

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

Last reviewed: March 2021

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