Patient education: COVID-19 overview & treatment

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.” It is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2. The virus first appeared in late 2019 and quickly spread around the world.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Symptoms usually start 4 or 5 days after a person is infected with the virus. But in some people, it can take up to 2 weeks for symptoms to appear. Some people never show symptoms at all.

When symptoms do happen, they can include:

●Fever

●Cough

●Trouble breathing

●Feeling tired

●Shaking chills

●Muscle aches

●Headache

●Sore throat

●Runny or stuffy nose

●Problems with sense of smell or taste

Some people have digestive problems like nausea or diarrhea. There have also been some reports of rashes or other skin symptoms. For example, some people with COVID-19 get reddish-purple spots on their fingers or toes. But it’s not clear why or how often this happens.

For most people, symptoms will get better within a few days to weeks. But a small number of people get very sick and stop being able to breathe on their own. In severe cases, their organs stop working, which can lead to death.

Some people with COVID-19 continue to have some symptoms for weeks or months. This seems to be more likely in people who are sick enough to need to stay in the hospital. But this can also happen in people who did not get very sick. Doctors are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19.

While children can get COVID-19, they are less likely than adults to have severe symptoms. More information about COVID-19 and children is available separately. See [Link].

Am I at risk for getting seriously ill?

It depends on your age and health. In some people, COVID-19 leads to serious problems like pneumonia, not getting enough oxygen, heart problems, or even death. This risk gets higher as people get older. It is also higher in people who have other health problems like serious heart disease, chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sickle cell disease, or obesity. People who have a weak immune system for other reasons (for example, HIV infection or certain medicines), asthma, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, or high blood pressure might also be at higher risk for serious problems.

How is COVID-19 spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person. This usually happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks near other people. The virus is passed through tiny particles from the infected person’s lungs and airway. These particles can easily travel through the air to other people who are nearby. In some cases, like in indoor spaces where the same air keeps being blown around, virus in the particles might be able to spread to other people who are farther away.

The virus can be passed easily between people who live together. But it can also spread at gatherings where people are talking close together, shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, or even singing together. Eating at restaurants raises the risk of infection, since people tend to be close to each other and not covering their faces. Doctors also think it is possible to get infected if you touch a surface that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. However, this is probably not very common.

A person can be infected, and spread the virus to others, even without having any symptoms.

Are there different variants of the virus that causes COVID-19?

Yes. Viruses constantly change or “mutate.” When this happens, a new strain or “variant” can form. Most of the time, new variants do not change the way a virus works. But when a variant has changes in important parts of the virus, it can act differently.

Experts have discovered several new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Some variants seem to spread more easily than the original virus. Certain variants might also make people sicker than others.

Experts are studying the different variants. This will help them better understand how far they have spread, whether they affect people differently, and how well different vaccines protect against them.

The more people who get vaccinated against COVID-19, the harder it will be for the virus to form new variants.

Is there a test for the virus that causes COVID-19?

Yes. If your doctor or nurse suspects you have COVID-19, they might take a swab from inside your nose or mouth for testing. In some cases, they might take a sample of your saliva. These tests can help your doctor figure out if you have COVID-19 or another illness.

There are 2 types of tests used to diagnose COVID-19:

Molecular tests – These look for the genetic material from the virus. They are also called “nucleic acid tests.” You can get a molecular test at a doctor’s office, clinic, or pharmacy. There are also places that make these tests available for lots of people, often at drive-through locations. Depending on the lab, it can take up to several days to get test results back.

Molecular tests are the best way to know if a person has COVID-19. That’s because they can detect even very low levels of virus in the body.

Antigen tests – These look for proteins from the virus. They can give results faster than most molecular tests. You can do an antigen test at a doctor’s office, clinic, pharmacy, or through some organizations that make testing available in other places. You can also buy antigen tests to use at home.

Antigen tests are not as accurate as molecular tests. They are more likely to give “false negative” results. This is when the test comes back negative even though the person actually is infected. But antigen tests can still be useful in some situations, when results are needed quickly or a molecular test is not available. For example, if a person has early symptoms of COVID-19, an antigen test can be accurate enough to detect virus in their body. If a person gets an antigen test and the result is negative, a molecular test might be needed to confirm they do not have the virus in their body. This might be done if the person has symptoms or knows they were exposed the virus.

There is also a blood test that can show if a person has had COVID-19 in the past. This is called an “antibody” test. Antibody tests are generally not used on their own to diagnose COVID-19 or make decisions about care. But experts can use them to learn how many people in a certain area were infected without knowing it.

For more information of getting tested for COVID-19 see information [Link].

Prevention of COVID-19

The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to get vaccinated.

Experts believe that vaccines are one of the most important ways to control the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are fully vaccinated are at much lower risk of getting sick from the virus.

If you are not yet vaccinated, there are other ways to help protect yourself and others:

Practice “social distancing.” It’s most important to avoid contact with people who are sick. But social distancing also means staying at least 6 feet (about 2 meters) from anyone outside your household. That’s because the virus can spread easily through close contact, and it’s not always possible to know who is infected.

Wear a face mask when you need to go be in public around other people. This is mostly so that if you are infected, even if you don’t have any symptoms, you are less likely to spread the infection to other people. It might also help protect you from others who could be infected. Make sure your mask covers your mouth and nose.

You can buy cloth masks and disposable masks in stores or online. Cloth masks work best if they have several layers of fabric. Your mask should fit snugly over your face with no gaps. You can improve the fit by using a mask with an adjustable nose wire, adjusting or knotting the ear loops to make it tighter, or wearing a cloth mask on top of a disposable mask.

When you take your mask off, make sure you do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. And wash your hands after you touch the mask. You can wash cloth masks with the rest of your laundry.

When you are outdoors and not around other people, you might not need to wear a mask. But it’s important to know what the rules are in your area.

Wash your hands with soap and water often. This is especially important after being out in public or touching surfaces that many other people also touch, like door handles or railings. The risk of getting infected by touching items like this is probably not very high. Still, it’s a good idea to wash your hands often. This also helps protect you from other illnesses, like the flu or the common cold.

Make sure to rub your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, cleaning your wrists, fingernails, and in between your fingers. Then rinse your hands and dry them with a paper towel you can throw away. If you are not near a sink, you can use a hand sanitizing gel to clean your hands. The gels with at least 60 percent alcohol work the best. But it is better to wash with soap and water if you can.

Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, nose, and eyes.

Avoid or limit traveling if you can. Any form of travel, especially if you spend time in crowded places like airports, increases your risk of getting and spreading infection.

If you do need to travel, be sure to check what the rules are in the area you are visiting. For example, depending on the situation, you might need to have a negative COVID-19 test, show proof of vaccination, or “self-quarantine” for some length of time after traveling.

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If you have a fever, cough, trouble breathing, or other symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor or nurse. They will ask about your symptoms. They might also ask about any recent travel and whether you have been around anyone who might have been infected. Then they can tell you if you should come in or go somewhere else to be tested.

If your symptoms are not severe, it is best to call before you go in. The staff can tell you what to do and whether you need to be seen in person. Many people with only mild symptoms should stay home and avoid other people until they get better. If you do need to go to the clinic or hospital, be sure to wear a mask. This helps protect other people. The staff might also have you wait someplace away from other people.

If you are severely ill and need to go to the clinic or hospital right away, you should still call ahead if possible. This way the staff can care for you while taking steps to protect others. If you think you are having a medical emergency, call for an ambulance (Dial 000).

What if I feel fine but think I was exposed?

As the number of people with COVID-19 increases, NSW Health is focusing on contacting people at highest risk of catching/contracting COVID-19. You may not receive a text message or call from NSW Health after being exposed to a person with COVID-19.

We ask people with COVID-19 to tell the people they have spent time with from the 2 days before they started having symptoms or 2 days before they tested positive (whichever came first) that they have COVID-19.

If you are told by someone that you have been in contact with a person with COVID-19, use this advice to understand your risk and what you can do to protect yourself, your family and your community. For more information see [Link].

Getting tested for COVID-19

If you or your child have any symptoms listed above or concerned that you have been in contact with a COVID-19 then get tested. The Australian Government has developed guidelines and protocols for PCR/RAT testing particularly if there has been a close contact or one has tested positive with COVID-19. Please follow the guidelines below – see [Link].

COVID-19 Treatment

Many people will be able to stay home while they get better. But people with serious symptoms or other health problems might need to go to the hospital. If you have tested positive please read this information carefully to assist with managing mild disease at home [LINK]

How will I my COVID-19 be managed?

If you are under 65 years of age, have had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, do not suffer from any chronic health conditions and are not pregnant, you can safely manage COVID-19 at home. Most people with COVID- 19 will have a mild illness and will recover in a few days or so, with some people having no symptoms at all. Mild illness means you might have symptoms like fever and cough, but you do not have trouble breathing. Most people with COVID-19 have mild illness and can rest at home until they get better. This usually takes about 2 weeks, but it’s not the same for everyone.

Most symptoms can be managed with:

  • Bed rest
  • Regular paracetamol and ibuprofen to relieve pain and fevers
  • Throat lozenges for a sore throat
  • Keeping hydrated with regular sips of waterContinue to take any medications you have been prescribed as usual. If you are unsure about continuing to take your current medication or treatment, or have any concerns about your health, call your doctor.Please contact your GP or call the NSW Health COVID-19 Care at Home Support Line on 1800 960 933 if you are pregnant, or if you have a chronic condition including:
  • Obesity
  • Severe, chronic or complex medical conditions (including cardiac, respiratory, renal or neurodevelopmental)
  • Diabetes
  • Immunocompromised, including if you have cancer
  • Severe mental illness.There are effective treatments available for people at risk of severe disease from COVID-19. If you need other clinical support or have non-urgent health related questions during isolation, call the NSW Health COVID-19 Care at Home Support Line on 1800 960 933.If you develop severe symptoms (particularly severe dizziness, drowsy or confused, suffering shortness of breath, chest pressure or pain lasting more than 10 minutes, unable to stand) you should call Triple Zero (000) straight away and tell the ambulance staff that you have been diagnosed with COVID- 19.

What do I need to do?

If you are a person at high risk of health complications, such as a pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, unvaccinated under 16 years of age or immunosuppressed, then you need to call the NSW Health COVID-19 Care at Home Support Line on 1800 960 933.

Further testing

If you got a positive result from a PCR swab, no further tests are required.

If you got a positive result on a rapid antigen test (RAT) and you are a household contact or have had a high- risk exposure (see Information for people exposed to COVID-19) to a known COVID-19 case, you do not need to get a PCR swab to confirm that you have COVID-19 unless you are:

• a person at high risk for health complications, such as pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, unvaccinated people over 16 years of age and immunosuppressed people

• a worker, resident or patient in a high-risk setting that has been asked to by the facility: 

o Healthcare or Aged care
o Disability care
o Correctional facilities

• asked to by your doctor.


You and your household contacts must isolate at home

You must self-isolate at home for 7 days from the date you got tested, even if you are fully vaccinated. Self- isolation means staying in your home or accommodation and remaining separated from others. Please see
the Self-Isolation Guideline for further information on how to self-isolate and what supports are available to you should you need them.

You must tell people you live with that you have COVID-19. Your household contacts must also self-isolate for 7 days, and have a rapid antigen test (RAT) as soon as possible and again on Day 6 (see Information for people exposed to COVID-19 and Get tested for COVID-19).

COVID-19 Self-isolation guidelines and support

Please follow enclosed guidelines and tips on self-isolation [LINK]

Tell your social contacts that you have tested positive

Testing positive to COVID-19 means that you may have spread COVID-19 to others. You may have been infectious from two days before you developed symptoms, or two days before you tested positive if you did not have symptoms.

You should tell any social contacts that you spent time with whilst infectious that you have tested positive. This includes friends and other people you have met socially, such as friends you had dinner with, people you met up with at a pub, club or social function, friends or family who visited your home.

Tell your contacts to assess their risk and next steps using Information for people exposed to COVID-19 and to get a rapid antigen test.

Tell your workplace or school that you have tested positive

You must also tell your work manager or education facility head/relevant staff member that you have tested positive for COVID-19 if you were onsite whilst infectious.

Tell your workplace/school the date of your test, the date you got sick (if you have symptoms), and the days you were at work/school whilst infectious. They will use this information to assess the risk to your fellow workers or students. Your workplace or school may inform them that they have been exposed to COVID-19, and what action they should take.You can tell your manager by phone or text, or ask a work friend to tell them for you. If you have attended an educational facility, you can call the main phone number for the campus you attend.

When can I leave self-isolation?

You must self-isolate for 7 days from the day you were tested. You can only leave self-isolation after 7 days if you do not have a sore throat, runny nose, cough or shortness of breath. You will receive an SMS from NSW Health after 7 days, but you do not have to wait for this SMS to leave self-isolation if it has been 7 days since you were tested. For example, if you were tested at 10am on Tuesday, you can leave isolation at 10am on the following Tuesday if you do not have any of these symptoms. You do not need to test before leaving self-isolation in NSW.

If you have a sore throat, runny nose, cough or shortness of breath in the last 24 hours of your isolation, please remain in isolation until 24 hours after your symptoms have resolved. If you are concerned, call your GP. If you are under the care of a clinical team, your team will tell you when you will be released from isolation.

Wear a mask when interacting with other people and avoid visiting high risk settings (health care, aged care, disability care or correctional facilities) for a further 3 days. If you work in one of these settings speak to your employer before returning. For more information see NSW Health Release and Recovery from COVID-19.

If you are recovering from COVID-19, it’s important to stay home and “self-isolate” until your doctor or nurse tells you it’s safe to stop. Self-isolation means staying apart from other people, even the people you live with. When you can stop self-isolation will depend on how long it has been since you had symptoms, and in some cases, whether you have had a negative test (showing that the virus is no longer in your body).

If you are at risk for getting seriously ill, doctors might recommend treatment even if you only have mild symptoms. This can lower your risk of getting sicker. Do not try any new medicines or treatments without talking to a doctor.

Severe illness – If you have more severe illness with trouble breathing, you might need to stay in the hospital, possibly in the intensive care unit (also called the “ICU”). While you are there, you will most likely be in a special isolation room. Only medical staff will be allowed in the room, and they will have to wear special gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection.

The doctors and nurses can monitor and support your breathing and other body functions and make you as comfortable as possible. You might need extra oxygen to help you breathe easily. If you are having a very hard time breathing, you might need a breathing tube. The tube goes down your throat and into your lungs. It is connected to a machine to help you breathe, called a “ventilator.” You might also get medicines that have been shown to help some people with severe COVID-19.

What should I do if someone in my home has COVID-19?

If someone in your home has COVID-19, there are additional things you can do to protect yourself and others:

●Keep the sick person away from others – The sick person should stay in a separate room, and use a different bathroom if possible. They should also eat in their own room.

Experts also recommend that the person stay away from pets in the house until they are better.

●Have them wear a mask – The sick person should wear a mask when they are in the same room as other people. If they can’t wear a mask, you can help protect yourself by covering your face when you are in the room with them.

●Wash hands – Wash your hands with soap and water often.

●Clean often – Here are some specific things that can help:

•Wear disposable gloves when you clean. It’s also a good idea to wear gloves when you have to touch the sick person’s laundry, dishes, utensils, or trash. Wash your hands after removing your gloves.

•Regularly clean things that are touched a lot. This includes counters, bedside tables, doorknobs, computers, phones, and bathroom surfaces.

•Clean things in your home with soap and water, but also use disinfectants on appropriate surfaces. Some cleaning products work well to kill bacteria, but not viruses, so it’s important to check labels.

What if I am pregnant?

More information about COVID-19 and pregnancy is available separately. See [Link].

If you are pregnant and you have questions about COVID-19, talk to your doctor, nurse, or midwife. They can help.

What can I do to cope with stress and anxiety?

It’s normal to feel anxious or worried about COVID-19. It’s also normal to feel stressed, lonely, or tired of not being able to do your usual activities. You can take care of yourself by trying to:

●Take breaks from the news

●Get regular exercise and eat healthy foods

●Find activities that you enjoy and can do at home

●Stay in touch with your friends and family members

It might help to remember that by doing things like getting vaccinated and following local guidelines, you are helping to protect other people in your community.

Where can I go to learn more?

As we learn more about this virus, expert recommendations will continue to change. Check with your doctor or public health official to get the most updated information about how to protect yourself and others.

You can find more information about COVID-19 at the following websites:

●NSW Government Department of Health:  www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/covid-19/

●United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov/COVID19

●World Health Organization (WHO): www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

COVID-19 patient education topics: