Winter was once known as the season of coughs, colds and flus, but now we have to add COVID-19 to that list.
Australia has recorded more than 7.3 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, and health experts expect to see more cases as the temperature drops.
But what should you expect while your immune system fights off the virus? We asked an infectious diseases expert to break it down.
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What COVID-19 symptoms should I expect?
Health experts say COVID-19 has similar symptoms to the common cold or flu.
The Australian government lists the most common symptoms of COVID-19 as:
- dry cough
- sore throat
- runny nose or congestion
- shortness of breath.
But there are some less common COVID-19 symptoms we should be looking out for.
"Some of those symptoms can even include diarrhoea or abdominal pain, for example," says Professor Paul Griffin, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at the University of Queensland.
Some of the less common symptoms you could experience include:
- muscle or joint pain
- nausea or loss of appetite
- temporary loss of smell and/or taste.
How bad will my symptoms get?
If you're up-to-date with your COVID-19 vaccinations, Professor Griffin says you can expect your symptoms to be less severe than they would have otherwise been.
"[The symptoms] are typically less both in intensity and duration in those [people] that are vaccinated," he said.
"That doesn't mean that there can't be people who are vaccinated who do get symptoms and even progress to more severe disease, but the rate of that is very significantly reduced by being vaccinated."
How long will my symptoms last?
Professor Griffin says there's no exact timeline for just how long you'll feel under the weather.
"Some people have fairly mild symptoms for a small number of days, and that's not uncommon, particularly in those that are vaccinated, and particularly against Omicron," Professor Griffin says.
"And of course, some people can progress to more severe disease, and some have what we call long COVID, where their symptoms can last months.
"Fortunately, that's not the expectation, it doesn't occur in everybody, but it is something that can happen."
When will I feel the worst?
Again, there's no hard and fast rule, but Professor Griffin says people often find anywhere between days three to six to be when their symptoms are most intense.
That's because around this time we typically have the most amount of virus in our bodies.
"So for most people if they get symptoms, and don't progress to more severe disease or long COVID, it is that sort of middle period where people will get most of their symptoms, and then start to recover relatively quickly," he says.
"Typically, a few days after you test positive to around day five or six is when you should expect most of the symptoms."
What should I do to manage my symptoms?
Professor Griffin encourages us to follow the same measures we use when recovering from colds and flus.
"Get plenty of rest, keep your fluids up, and eat a good healthy, balanced diet," he says.
Medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen can also help manage the worst pain and fevers — but make sure you follow the directions and take the correct dose.
Current guidelines say positive cases must spend seven days in isolation while they recover from COVID-19, which means you can focus on resting and recuperating (and have an excuse to binge that TV show you've been meaning to watch).
When should I go to the doctor?
If you have underlying medical conditions or are at a higher risk, Professor Griffin says you should contact your GP or specialist as soon as you test positive to work out a plan (if you haven't already) and organise access to COVID-19 antiviral medication to prevent being hospitalised.
"Those antiviral therapies that we give to people as early as possible if they're high-risk, they work best if they are given early," he says.
But even if you're not considered high-risk, Professor Griffin says you should monitor for more severe symptoms developing.
"The main thing is breathing problems, so if you're feeling significantly short of breath and you've noticed a reduction in what you're able to do, it might be that you're having trouble walking upstairs or can't walk usual distances ... [that] would be a good indicator that it's a good time to get seen," he says.
"The main one certainly is shortness of breath, to the point where people need oxygen, that's when we really need to be able to help them.
"So if you're not able to do your normal things and feel quite short of breath, that's certainly a good reason to get seen straight away."
But Professor Griffin urges people to seek medical attention if they are extremely unwell, and not to be put off because of pressures on hospitals and GP clinics.
"It's important people know if they need medical attention, there are certainly avenues by which that can happen," he says.
"There are many options for telehealth, and many clinics where people can be seen with the right precautions."
How will I know when I’ve recovered?
If you wake up and notice you're feeling a bit brighter than the day before, chances are you're on the road to recovery.
"Sometimes it can be a bit hard to appreciate, because people might be taking medicine to make them feel better, or it might be subtle when you do first turn that corner," Professor Griffin says.
"People will usually be able to tell that they just feel a bit better, they're able to do a little bit more and feel a bit less under the weather from the virus."
Should I be concerned if my symptoms linger?
Professor Griffin says it's common for people to have a persistent mild cough and feel lethargic for a few weeks after having COVID-19.
"It's not uncommon for some of those more mild symptoms to persist for some time," he says.
"A lot of people will feel tired and run down for some weeks afterwards."
But if it's long COVID you're worried about, Professor Griffin says it's best to speak to the experts.
"Of course, if people have lingering symptoms they're concerned about, speak to your doctor about it to be assessed."
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