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How to monitor COVID-19 symptoms

9-minute read

If you develop symptoms such as severe shortness of breath or chest pain, call triple zero (000) immediately. Tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival if you have COVID-19.

Why is it important that I monitor my symptoms?

Most people can manage COVID-19 at home and may have either no symptoms or mild to moderate symptoms. Symptoms can change and get worse, so it’s important to understand what to look for.

A general practitioner (GP) can work with you to monitor your symptoms while you are sick. They may ask you to keep a record of your temperature, oxygen levels and heart rate.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has developed a guide for people managing COVID at home. It includes a COVID-19 action plan and a diary that you can use to track your symptoms.

When should I seek medical advice?

If your symptoms change and start to get worse, call your GP for advice.

If you develop severe symptoms, you should call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and tell the ambulance staff that you have COVID-19. You should also contact your GP or health service if you’re pregnant, have any chronic conditions or have any concerns about your health.

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

How do I check my respiratory rate (breathing)?

You can monitor yourself for changes to your normal breathing patterns.

Try to relax and breathe normally. Set a timer for 30 seconds, then count the number of times you breathe in and out before the time is up. Double this number and this will be your respiratory rate per minute. Write this number down.

A normal resting breathing rate for an adult should be between 10 – 20 breaths per minute. This is different for everyone and will depend on your age and other health conditions.

If you count a total of between 20 -30 breaths per minute, you may have moderate respiratory symptoms. You should contact your doctor for a review as soon as possible.

If you count more than 30 breaths per minute, you have severe respiratory symptoms. You should seek emergency treatment and call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and tell the ambulance staff that you have COVID-19.

Your individual circumstances, such as age and other health conditions must be considered, which means these numbers may need to be adapted.

Your GP or nurse can also count your respiratory rate if you are doing a video check-up by watching your chest rise and fall. If you can’t check your own respiratory rate, think about if you are:

  • breathless when you walk
  • breathless when you are sitting
  • breathless when you are speaking
  • wheezing
  • have a persistent, new or changed cough
  • have pain or pressure in your chest

Make a note to discuss with your GP if feelings of breathlessness are getting better, worse or remain the same.

How do I check my heart rate (pulse)?

Your resting heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you are at rest – such as when you are relaxed, sitting or lying down.

Resting heart rate will be different from person to person.

Your pulse oximeter (if you have one) can check your heart rate. This is the number shown next to the PR (pulse rate) or BPM (beats per minute) symbol.

Some smartphones and smartwatches have a heart rate monitor function, however these are not accurate and should not be used. If you don’t have a pulse oximeter, you can check your heart rate manually by placing your index and middle fingers of one hand on the opposite wrist under the thumb.

With your fingers lightly on your wrist, you can count the number of beats that you feel over 30 seconds. Then double the number of beats you counted over 30 seconds. This number is your heart rate. Write this number down.

A normal resting heart rate for an adult can range between 60 and 100 beats a minute.

A lower resting heart rate usually means your heart is working more efficiently and is more fit. For example, an athlete might have a resting heart rate of around 40 beats a minute, but, a slow pulse could also be a sign of problems.

A fast resting heart rate (higher than 100 beats per minute) can also be a sign of problems. You should contact your doctor or general practice for a review if your heart rate is low, or high.

Your individual circumstances, such as age and other health conditions must be considered, which means these numbers may need to be adapted.

How do I check my oxygen level?

If you’ve been given a pulse oximeter, you may be asked to check your oxygen levels once or twice a day. The device clips over your finger. It doesn’t hurt and only takes a minute to check your oxygen levels.

You can also purchase a pulse oximeter from a pharmacy over the phone or online and have it delivered to your home. Some smartphones and smartwatches have a pulse oximeter function, however these are not accurate and should not be used.

Pulse oximeter
An oximeter clips onto your finger.

If you are looking after a child with COVID-19 and are asked to monitor oxygen levels, you might need a pulse oximeter specially designed for children. Your GP or nurse will discuss this with you.

When testing your oxygen:

  1. Remove any nail polish or false nails. These can interfere with the device.
  2. Wash your hands with warm water and thoroughly dry them. The device works best when your hands are warm.
  3. Sit in an upright position.
  4. Give your fingers a wiggle and rub them to get the blood flowing.
  5. Attach the clip to one of your fingers so that the tip of your finger is touching the end of the device. The palm of your hand should be facing down and the screen of the pulse oximeter should be facing up so you can read it.
  6. Keep your hand and fingers still.
  7. Breathe normally and restfully.
  8. After waiting for 1 minute, record the number next to the SpO2 symbol.

Pulse oximeters may over or under-estimate oxygen saturation. The accuracy of the measurement can be affected by many factors, including skin pigmentation, correct fitting of the device, peripheral blood flow, nail coatings, tattoos and dyes, and maintenance and cleaning of the devices.

If you are not getting a reading, or if the reading is under 95%, give your fingers a wiggle, take a few breaths and try the device on a different finger.

Your oxygen level should be 95% or higher.

Lower than this, such as an oxygen level of 93 -94%, may mean you have moderate COVID-19 symptoms and could be a sign you need more frequent check-ups with your GP or nurse. You should contact your general practice for a review as soon as possible.

An oxygen level of 92% or less, means you may have severe COVID-19 symptoms. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and tell the ambulance staff that you have COVID-19.

Your individual circumstances, such as age and other health conditions must be considered which means these numbers may need to be adapted.

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

Last reviewed: July 2022


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