So, you’ve woken up with a scratchy throat and a headache.
Or maybe you’ve been up all night coughing and your temperature’s a little high.
What’s the first thing you think?
If it’s “maybe I have coronavirus”, you’re probably not alone — it’s hard to escape it when there’s something COVID-related almost everywhere we look.
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As Australia moves into winter, there will likely be more and more people experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms in the coming months.
If you’re not sure whether your symptoms are COVID-19, here are some things to consider.
What are the coronavirus symptoms to look out for?
Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever (temperature over 38C), a dry cough and tiredness.
Some people also report a sore throat, shortness of breath, aches and pains, headaches, diarrhea, or a runny or stuffy nose.
Suddenly losing your sense of smell has also been identified as a symptom.
But other people have reported that they had no symptoms at all before they tested positive.
Coronavirus symptoms can vary drastically, but fever and coughs are the most common.(Reuters)
All of those symptoms can also point to a range of other illnesses not related to COVID-19 at all — which makes it almost impossible to pick out certain symptoms that will clearly confirm whether you have coronavirus or not without a test.
“The clinical presentation of COVID-19 can be quite varied,” associate professor in epidemiology from La Trobe University Hassan Vally says.
“It is not possible to look at the clinical presentation of respiratory illness in a person and be confident as to whether a person is infected with coronavirus or whether they have another respiratory infection.”
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreakThrow in flu season and eased restrictions. What happens then?
Winter is prime time for colds and flus.
Even though social distancing has seen a significant drop in flu-like presentations so far this year, that doesn’t mean it’s gone completely.
Professor Gerry Fitzgerald from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Public Health says there will be other illnesses with respiratory symptoms going around.
“For those people who are exposed to COVID-19, they’re going to get those very general symptoms and those symptoms are largely indistinguishable from people with the common cold or even people with influenza,” he says.
“The thing that’s most common is the common cold.”
There’s no vaccine for coronavirus, but health authorities have urged Australians to get their flu vaccines this year.(ABC News: Freya Michie)
Professor Vally says it’s still too soon to say how coronavirus is affected by seasonal changes.
“While it would be logical to expect more flu-like symptoms in the colder months of the year generally, we are in many ways entering uncharted territory where we have modified the environment and behaviours to an extent that we have never done before,” he says.
How do I know if I need a test?
The best thing to do is call your doctor, but if you have symptoms, there’s not really any way of knowing 100 per cent if you do or don’t have COVID-19 without a test.
You can also check out Health Direct’s Coronavirus Symptom Checker (find it here).
It’s an anonymous online tool that asks you a series of questions and recommends what you should do next based on what symptoms you’re experiencing, like go to an emergency department, book a doctor’s appointment or keep a close eye on your symptoms.
Professor Vally says it’s really important that people get tested if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
You can check your State Government’s website to find out where the closest testing clinic is to you.(ABC News: Stefan Lowe)
“There’s actually no way to be ‘pretty sure you’ve just picked up a cold’ in the situation we are in at the moment with this pandemic,” he says.
“We’ve seen what can happen when someone has mild symptoms and goes into work and infects many others. If you have any respiratory symptoms, you need to behave as if it could be coronavirus.”
But Professor Fitzgerald said the vast majority of people being tested in Australia at the moment are returning negative results.
He says it’s important to remember that a PCR test only tells you if you have a current infection — not if you’ve had COVID-19 and recovered (like an antibody test) or if you’ve come into contact with the virus recently enough that it hasn’t developed.
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“We are already testing a lot of people who clearly don’t have COVID-19,” he says.
“Everybody would love to say ‘I’ve walked past somebody with COVID-19, quickly test me to see if I’ve got it’ — there’s no test that does that.”
I want a test but my doctor said no. What should I do?
The ABC has been contacted by a number of people reporting they asked their doctor for a COVID-19 test but were turned away or told they didn’t need one.
When Australia first started dealing with the pandemic, testing kits were in short supply so the criteria for testing wasn’t as broad as it is now, meaning some people may not have immediately qualified, even if they were feeling unwell.
Now there’s a more steady supply of testing kits available, testing criteria has widened and dedicated respiratory clinics have been established to test people for COVID-19.
Eligibility for coronavirus testing has changed in Australia since the pandemic began.(AAP: David Mariuz)
You don’t need a referral but you may need to register for an appointment, so check where the closest one is to you and get in touch with them to see what you need to do.
Professor Vally says anyone with respiratory symptoms should be tested to ensure they don’t infect others.
“If for some reason this doesn’t happen, they should go to one of the hospital-based respiratory clinics or other drive-through or walk-through clinics,” he says.
Can someone with symptoms be forced to get tested?
Queensland this week introduced emergency coronavirus legislation in parliament that will see anyone accused of coughing or spitting on someone face mandatory testing.
The bill is expected to be debated and passed by the end of the week.
Professor Fitzgerald says some Quarantine or Public Health Acts may have provisions for certain groups, like people returning from overseas, to get tested.
Some states have introduced hefty fines for people who cough or spit on frontline workers.(ABC News: Patrick Rocca)
“A lot of those powers predate COVID-19 by a long way,” he says.
“Most states would be reluctant to send in the police and drag somebody out and force them to be tested.
“You’d hope that common sense would prevail and we don’t get to a situation where people are being arrested to be tested.”
As for your neighbour who has been coughing and spluttering all week but won’t see a doctor, you can’t really make them get tested (you should probably keep your distance though).
“The response to this crisis has been mainly focussed on encouraging people to do the right thing, for themselves and others, and I expect this will continue,” Professor Vally says.
How do I get tested?
If you think you have COVID-19, call your doctor, local medical centre or hospital.
They will direct you to where you need to go in your area.
You can also call the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080.
Get in touch with your local health authorities to find out how and where to get a COVID-19 test.(AAP: Mariuz)
It’s operating 24/7 and can help provide information on what to do based on your current symptoms.
Health Direct has also created this helpful mapping tool for testing sites — check it out here.
Testing criteria may still vary slightly between states and territories, but the national advice at the moment is that anyone with symptoms of an acute respiratory infection should get tested.
So if you’re unwell, contact your GP or health service and talk to them about your exact situation.
Call 000 in the event of an emergency.
We’ve got more on COVID-19 testing right here.
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