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I have coronavirus (COVID-19) – now what?

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What will happen once you're diagnosed with novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

For many Queenslanders right now, one of their biggest fears is that they will be diagnosed with coronavirus (COVID-19). But what actually happens when you contract the virus in Queensland?

This article will walk you through some of the common scenarios for Queenslanders who have coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s important to remember that everyone who experiences this disease will experience it a little differently, because their bodies will respond to the virus in a different way.

Treating mild illness at home

For most Queenslanders, having the virus will cause only a mild illness, and it will be more of an inconvenience than a serious health issue. Some people may not have any symptoms at all, while others might have mild symptoms including:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of taste or smell.

If your symptoms are manageable without medical supervision, your doctor will instruct you to look after yourself at home in self-isolation. This means you need to stay in a room by yourself while you get better, so you don’t give the virus to anyone else. You can read more about how to self-isolate safely in this factsheet.

If you are recovering with the virus at home, it’s important to get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and eat well when it’s comfortable to do so.

Your doctor may have given you advice about medicines you can take to help with your symptoms. It’s important to only take medicines your doctor has recommended, because they will understand how these might interact with any other medicines you take and your health history.

What happens if my symptoms get worse?

While you are recovering at home, your doctor or a public health official will check in with you about how you’re feeling. You must tell them if you notice new or worsening symptoms, so they can make the best decision about how to manage your illness. If you become more unwell, they may decide you need to be moved to hospital.

If you notice new or worsening symptoms that are concerning you at any time, contact your doctor or call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) to speak to a registered nurse – you can use this service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

When to call an ambulance

You should always call an ambulance if:

  • you are experiencing severe symptoms, like shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • you think it’s an emergency
  • you think your life or someone else’s life is in danger.

Call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If you can, explain to the operator that you have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Treating serious symptoms

Some people who have COVID-19, particularly people who are elderly or have pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma, or are immunocompromised, may experience more serious symptoms. Sometimes these can be life-threatening.

Increasingly serious symptoms of COVID-19 can include:

  • pneumonia – an infection of the lungs which can make it hard to breathe
  • bacterial infection – a second infection caused by bacteria
  • sepsis –a life-threatening condition that happens when the body’s response to an infection damages healthy tissue and organs.

If you are at higher risk of getting very unwell, because of your age or you have a pre-existing health condition, and or you are already very unwell, you may be treated in hospital. In hospital you will be in a special ward, away from patients who do not have COVID-19. You may not be allowed to have visitors and the hospital staff treating you will wear special equipment to stop themselves from catching the virus.

How long you need to stay in hospital will depend on how unwell you are – it might be days or weeks until you are well enough to go home.

If you are severely unwell, you might be treated in the Intensive Care Unit. Some patients who are this sick might need to be moved to another hospital where they can get this care.

What is an intensive care unit and who needs to be treated there?

In a hospital, an Intensive Care Unit, or ICU, is a specific ward where very sick patients who need specialist critical care are treated. ICUs are different to other areas of the hospital. In an ICU, every patient usually has constant, one-on-one care. There are often many machines around a patient to help keep them alive. The patient might have breathing tubes to help them breathe, and they might be sedated so that they stay relaxed or asleep.

Patients who have COVID-19 may be treated in ICU if they have severe breathing problems, pneumonia or have developed another condition like sepsis. Once they are in the ICU, the focus will be on treating these symptoms and complications so that they can survive.

You can learn more about what it’s like in intensive care in our blog article featuring staff from the Ipswich Hospital Intensive Care Unit. While this article talks about what it’s like to visit someone in ICU, please be aware that when a person has an infectious disease like COVID-19, rules about visiting them in ICU may be different and you may not be allowed to visit, or only for a very short amount of time.

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How long will symptoms from the virus last?

Symptoms of the virus may last between days and weeks and may get worse over time. People who have experienced severe symptoms or side effects from the virus may take weeks or months to recover fully, while people with a mild illness may feel completely better within a week or two.

What happens when I’m better? How do I know that I no longer have COVID-19?

If you’ve had a mild illness which meant you didn’t need to be treated in hospital, you’ll be cleared by a registered nurse or medical practitioner from your treating Hospital and Health Service. They will tell you when your period of self-isolation has ended.

If you’ve had more severe symptoms and have been treated in hospital, there are two ways you might be released. If you’ve still got mild symptoms, but no longer require hospital treatment, you could be sent home to recover while self-isolating. You will be told by your health practitioner when your period of self-isolation has ended.

People who continue to require hospital treatment will need to have two swab tests done at least a day apart that come back negative for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) before they can be released from hospital. Some people who have been seriously unwell may no longer have the virus but may still have to stay in hospital for further treatment until they are well enough to return home.

Because healthcare workers and workers in aged care facilities work with vulnerable populations, there are different requirements for them to end the self-isolation period and return to work. If this applies to you, your treating team will talk to you about the necessary steps that will be taken once you’ve recovered.

Will I be immune to the virus after having COVID-19?

When you first get infected with a new virus, your immune system develops defences against it as it fights it off. These defences can last a long time. There have now been multiple research studies that show this same process happens when you get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. While it’s too early to tell yet exactly how our bodies and immune systems will react to having had COVID-19 over time – we’ve only been dealing with this virus for a few months so far – we do know how our bodies react to other viruses, which helps us to know what’s most likely to happen.

When you’re infected with a virus, your body creates antibodies that bind to the virus and stop it from being able to infect your cells. This process starts about one week after you’ve become sick. Your immune system also produces white blood cells that attack the virus and control inflammation in your body.

For other viruses, these antibodies and white blood cells decrease over time after your initial infection. Special cells called ‘sentinel’ cells stay put, though. These are like memory cells that stand at the ready, poised to fight off the virus more effectively if it enters your body again. This means if you ever meet the virus again, you’ll only experience a mild form of the illness, or even have no symptoms at all. With the original SARS-CoV virus, which causes the disease SARS, antibodies last in the body for at least a year, while white blood cells lasted for a decade or more. After that, the sentinel cells stay prepared to fight the virus.

If a vaccine is created to immunise us against SARS-CoV-2, your body will respond as if it had been infected by the virus, but without you needing to be actually infected and sick first.

What can I do to stop the spread of COVID-19?

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, you might be concerned about spreading the virus to others. The best thing you can do is self-isolate properly if you are at home, and follow the instructions given to everyone about hygiene during this pandemic.

Every Queenslander should be following these steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • wash your hands often and properly
  • try not to touch your face
  • stay 1.5 metres away from other people
  • don’t go out when you are sick, even if you have not been diagnosed with COVID-19.

You can read more about how the virus spreads and how people can protect themselves and others in our blog article, How does COVID-19 spread and how can I stop myself from getting it?

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Last updated: 25 March 2020