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Symptoms of COVID-19 and how the virus spreads

11-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 or probable COVID-19.

Check your symptoms

Use the Coronavirus (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?

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

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


How severe is COVID-19?

Most people 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 over 70 years of age
  • 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 or the hospital emergency department, 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 like 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 uncommon 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.

Can the coronavirus be spread from human to human?

Yes, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread from human to human.

How does the coronavirus spread?

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is most likely to spread from person to person through:

  • direct contact with a person while they are infectious, including 24 hours before they become unwell
  • close contact with an infected person who does not take appropriate precautions when coughing or sneezing
  • touching contaminated objects or surfaces (such as door-knobs or tables) and then touching the mouth or face

COVID-19 is a new disease, so there is no existing immunity in our community. This means that it could spread widely and quickly.

Read more here about how to avoid infection.

How soon after infection do COVID-19 symptoms appear?

In most cases, it takes up to 14 days for symptoms to appear after a person has been infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19). The period is also known as the ‘incubation period’.

Based on the information currently available and medical expertise, the Australian Department of Health is advising people at risk to self-isolate in their homes for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms. Go here to find out when self-isolation is required.

Can a person transmit the coronavirus to others before symptoms appear?

Yes, it appears transmission can take place at least 24 hours before any symptoms appear. It's still being investigated, but evidence suggests that a person can spread COVID-19 infection from about 1 day before they first develop symptoms, until up to 1 day after the symptoms stop.

For how long can a person spread the coronavirus to other people?

The length of time during which a person remains infectious (and can spread the COVID-19 infection to others) is not yet entirely known. However, some evidence suggests that a person can spread the infection from about a day before they first develop symptoms until up to one day after their symptoms are gone.

How long can the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 survive on surfaces?

It’s currently uncertain how long the virus that causes 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 meet a person with COVID-19?

If you have been identified as a contact of a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection in Australia, your local public health unit will get in touch with you and provide advice.

If you’ve been in close contact with the infected person (including in the 24 hours before their symptoms started), you need to isolate yourself at home for 14 days after the contact, monitor your health and report any symptoms to your local public health unit.

'Close contact' is typically being face to face with the person for at least 15 minutes, or being in the same closed space for at least 2 hours.

If you had less contact than that, there is a much smaller risk of your getting infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. However, as a precaution, you must still monitor your health for 14 days after the contact.

Practise simple hygiene by:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser (e.g. before and after eating, and after going to the toilet)
  • cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and dispose of it straight away; wash your hands afterwards
  • cough or sneeze into your (flexed) elbow
  • cough away from other people
  • stay more than 1.5 metres away from people when out in public, if possible

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 Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker to find out if you need to seek medical help.


If the Symptom Checker tells you to seek medical help, it is very important that you call before visiting your doctor or the hospital emergency department, to describe your symptoms and travel history.

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' or 'probable' case of COVID-19?

A confirmed case is a person who tests positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. This requires special testing in public health laboratories.

A probable case of coronavirus (COVID-19) is someone who:

  • has coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms, AND
  • lives in the same household — or household-like setting, such as in a boarding school or hostel — as either a person with confirmed COVID-19 infection or someone with coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms.

How is COVID-19 treated?

There is no specific treatment for people who have COVID-19. Confirmed or probable 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.

Is there a COVID-19 outbreak in Australia?

Yes, there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia.

Laboratory testing of people with COVID-19 symptoms and relevant travel history is taking place and people with confirmed or probable COVID-19 are being closely monitored by public health officials.

Visit the Australian Department of Health’s website for more information and advice.

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.


More frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Click on the links below for more questions and answers about the coronavirus (COVID-19).


Information and alerts

Visit the Department of Health's website for the latest alerts on COVID-19 in Australia, or the World Health Organization's website for global updates.


Resources in other languages


Information for health professionals

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) provides coronavirus (COVID-19) information for GPs.

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

Last reviewed: April 2020


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