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Do I have the coronavirus? What you need to know about COVID-19 symptoms

Dr Michela Sorensen
A young man sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket blows his nose

How do you know if it's coronavirus or the flu?

A young man sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket blows his nose

Cold and flu season might have finished, but allergy season is in full swing, bringing a raft of hayfever symptoms and for some, aggravating asthma. But how do you know whether you’re experiencing allergies or if it’s something more serious like the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

If you’re worried about COVID-19, it’s important that you seek accurate information from a medical expert. To help, we asked GP Dr Michela Sorensen for her advice on recognising the symptoms of the coronavirus and what to do if you think you might have contracted it.

The symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild illness to pneumonia – and while some people will only experience mild symptoms that pass quickly, others will get very ill, very quickly.

One of the challenges in identifying the virus is that it’s so different from one person to the next – and some symptoms are similar to the common cold, explains Michela.

“I’ve spoken to a few people who have either had it or have family members who’ve had it and every single person has presented really differently,” says Michela. “That’s making it difficult to diagnose.”

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Michela lists out the most common symptoms:

  • Fever: “This is the most common one – a temperature over 38 degrees,” says Michela

  • Shortness of breath: “A lot of people actually don’t know what shortness of breath means,” says Michela. “It’s basically where you feel like you can’t get a full deep breath in, and it feels constricted”

  • Cold-like symptoms: Such as coughing, sore throat and fatigue

“Some people have presented with diarrhoea as their first symptom, but that’s less common,” Michela says. “And for some people loss of smell is their first symptom.”

A young woman rugged up on the couch blows her nose

Is it allergies? Or is it coronavirus?

Michela says it can be very difficult to distinguish the symptoms of hayfever from COVID symptoms. A runny nose, cough and sore throat, for example, can be symptoms of both COVID and allergies. And asthma, which can sometimes be triggered by pollen exposure, can result in difficulty breathing – also a COVID symptom.

However, there are some allergy symptoms that aren’t COVID related, such as sneezing and itchy, watery eyes ¬– common symptoms of seasonal hayfever. But it’s important that you don’t self-diagnose – instead, make sure you consult your doctor, says Michela.

“Unfortunately, there is no accurate way to differentiate the causes without a COVID test. So even if you are a regular hayfever or allergy sufferer, if you are experiencing any symptoms it is still imperative you get tested,” she says.

What should you do if you think you have COVID-19?

If you think you might have COVID-19, Michela recommends that you start by calling your doctor’s office.

“Rather than going in person, call them, because most are electing to do telehealth appointments for this type of thing first to see whether you meet the criteria for getting tested for COVID-19,” Michela advises.

Alternatively, call the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080, where you’ll get advice on what steps to take. There’s also an online symptom checker which will advise you on whether to get medical help or get tested.

If you think you have COVID, you must isolate at home until you have a negative test result or your symptoms have gone – whichever is longer. Protect the community by having someone else get you groceries or collect items you need from the workplace, and leaving them on your doorstep.

Mythbusting COVID-19 symptoms

According to Michela, there’s a lot of false information circulating about the symptoms of COVID-19 and one of the most common is the misconception that this illness is only ever severe.

“Because we’ve heard of all the people getting admitted to hospital and in intensive care, some people think that they need to be really sick to seek help. But, there’s a huge spectrum of severity and just because your symptoms are mild, doesn’t mean that you don’t have COVID-19.”

Another myth is that you have to have been overseas to be infected. Initially many cases in Australia were brought in from overseas, however changes in overseas travel rates mean many infections now are locally acquired.

“(And) there are quite a few cases where they haven’t been able to identify the source,” Michela points out.

“So my advice would be that anyone with a respiratory symptom should contact either their local doctor or the Coronavirus Helpline to get advice.”

In addition, you can download the Australian Government’s COVIDSafe app which uses tracing technology to let you know if you’ve been in contact with someone else using the app who’s tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the past few weeks.

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Dr Michela Sorensen

Dr Michela Sorensen is a GP who is passionate about women’s, mental and rural health. She believes access is the biggest barrier we have when it comes to our health, and is a strong advocate for change in this area. In her spare time, Michela enjoys baking... and eating most of the mixture before it actually makes it into the oven.