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Sore throat? Cough? A doctor explains what to do if you have coronavirus-like symptoms.

As Australia responds to the increasing number of Novel coronavirus cases, it’s understandable that people are on high-alert when it comes to their own health.

A sore throat we would normally just ride out and treat with lozenges, suddenly seems far more worthy of a visit to the doctor. A cough now attracts concerned glances from people nearby.

But healthcare workers are urging calm and stressing that clinics, GP surgeries and hospitals could become overburdened if we all suddenly rush through the doors for every splutter and tickle.

Watch: The simple ways to protect yourself from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Video by The World Health Organisation

So what should you do if you have cold- or flu-like symptoms amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

We spoke to Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases physician and Associate Professor at the Australian National University Medical School, to get the answers.

How do I know if I have COVID-19? What exactly are the symptoms?

It’s hard to tell. That’s because, in over 80 per cent of cases of COVID-19, the symptoms are mild and very similar to a common cold or flu.

“The most common symptoms that people will get are fever and a cough,” said Dr. Senanayake. “There may be other symptoms to a lesser extent, like fatigue, sore throat, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains, and uncommonly diarrhoea and a runny nose.”

Others, typically those with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, can become more severely ill and experience pneumonia.

An even smaller proportion — roughly 1 per cent according to the World Health Organisation — have no symptoms at all at the time of diagnosis. However, most of those cases do eventually develop symptoms within the following two days.

How quickly do COVID-19 symptoms emerge?

“On average, after you’ve been infected, it takes about five to six days for symptoms to appear, but that could be anything as short as one day and up to 14 days,” said Dr. Senanayake.

What should I do if I have cold- or flu-like symptoms?

“These are very nonspecific symptoms, and it may not be due to COVID-19. So, therefore, it would be reasonable to just call your local doctor, tell them what’s wrong with you and ask them how to proceed,” said Dr. Senanayake.

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“If you are feeling extremely unwell then, of course, you should go to the emergency room… But we don’t want emergency departments, who are already very busy, to get overwhelmed with people who don’t necessarily have to be there.”

Listen: What happens when you have COVID-19? How will you feel? How can you tell the difference between it and the common cold? Dr Brad McKay explains.

In both cases, it’s important that you call before showing up and describe your symptoms and travel history.

If you need to be assessed in person, staff will advise you on precautionary measures to take before your visit, to minimise any possible risk to others (e.g. how you should transport yourself there, whether you should wear a face mask, and so on).

Some states have also established dedicated COVID-19/fever clinics at certain hospitals, which you can visit without prior notice if you have symptoms. Visit your state’s health department website for details.

Advice is also available via the Australian Government’s Coronavirus Health Information Line: call 1800 020 080 any time, day or night. Or phone HealthDirect on 1800 022 222 to speak to a registered nurse.

In an emergency, such as severe difficulty breathing, call 000.

Do I need to get tested for COVID-19 if I have cold and flu symptoms?

No, not necessarily.

Testing laboratories only have a limited capacity to analyse results, so your doctor/healthcare workers will carefully assess your situation and determine if there’s enough suspicion of infection to warrant performing the test.

The Australian Department of Health stresses that testing is currently only recommended if:

  • You have returned from overseas in the past 14 days and you develop respiratory illness with or without fever;
  • You have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days and you develop respiratory illness with or without fever;
  • You have severe community-acquired pneumonia and there is no clear cause;
  • You are a healthcare worker who works directly with patients and you have a respiratory illness and a fever.

What is the test for COVID-19? How long does it take to get results?

These tests can be performed by GPs, public hospitals and at some private pathology clinics.

Sydney general practitioner, Dr Brad McKay, told Mamamia that medical practitioners are taking both nasal and throat swabs from patients to collect cells, which are then sent off to a lab for COVID-19 testing.

Results are meant to be returned in 24-48 hours, but Dr McKay reported some of his patients waiting up to four days.

Dr. Senanayake said the turnaround time on results will depend on several factors, including the state or territory in which you get the test, the testing load of the lab, and so on.

What should I do while waiting for results?

Most likely, you will be well enough that your doctor will tell you to return home and self-isolate, as a precaution. (See our previous article about what self-quarantine involves.) However, this will depend on several factors, including your health and your living situation.

If you are sent home, the Australian Government Department of Health provides the following advice for self-isolating while waiting for your results:

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  • remain in your home, and do not attend work or school;
  • wash your hands often with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds);
  • cough and sneeze into your elbow;
  • avoid cooking for or caring for other members of your household;
  • if unwell, stay more than 1.5 meters away from others;
  • wear a mask (provided by your doctor) if close contact with other people is unavoidable.

Under current guidance from the Australian Department of Health, the people you live with may need to be isolated — even if they don’t have any symptoms. Your public health unit will determine this on a case-by-case basis.

If you are a suspected case, Public Health officers will provide you with all these details and a phone number to contact if you have questions while waiting for your results.

If the diagnosis is negative…

The doctor who ordered your test will contact you and advise on next steps. Depending on your health, travel history and contacts, that may still include a period of self-isolation.

If you have any new or returning symptoms after receiving your result, contact your doctor.

If the diagnosis is positive….

Public Health officials will contact you and advise you on next steps depending on the severity of your illness.

If you were told to isolate at home while awaiting your results, that will probably involve recovering at home until you’re cleared by Public Health officials to return to normal activities. (For more information on at-home quarantine, see the Australian Government Department of Health’s isolation guide.)

Remember that 80 per cent of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 have mild illness, and that the survival rate in Australia is 97.4 per cent.

How is COVID-19 treated?

“There is currently no approved treatment for the virus. You can treat the symptoms, and if people are sick enough to go to hospital, there are supported measures we can use in hospital as well,” said Dr. Senanayake.

“There are also anti-viral agents that are used for other viruses, such as HIV and medicines against malaria, which might have some activity against the virus.”

In most cases, though, the symptoms will resolve on their own.

How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?

“Usually, with a mild case, you should fully recover within two weeks,” said Dr. Senanayake. “If you have a serious illness, that can take three to six weeks. But those are usually people who are quite sick and need to be in hospital.”

For how long are people with COVID-19 infectious?

“We’re still working out that answer,” said Dr. Senanayake. “We think people are most likely not to be infectious once they no longer have any fevers or other symptoms.

“But often — and especially in the hospital setting — people will be tested and cleared with negative swabs before they’re called non-infectious.”

Where can I get more information?

Visit the Australian Government Department of Health homepage at www.health.gov.au.

Call the National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.

Call the free HealthDirect Helpline to speak to a registered nurse: 1800 022 222.

Visit the website for your state’s health department.

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