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What to do if you have COVID symptoms before Christmas

States across Australia have reached the height of the current COVID wave, with the peak arriving just in time for Christmas.  

Data released on Friday shows cases have started to plateau in New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria.

But leaders have cautioned their communities to be careful over the festive period, in order to avoid another spike in cases. 

It's likely COVID isn't a gift you want to give a loved one this Christmas, so here's what to consider if you think you could be contagious. 

What are the symptoms of COVID? 

A fever, coughing, a sore throat and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms.

They can range from mild to severe and some people recover more easily than others. 

Other symptoms include:

  • runny nose or congestion
  • headache or fatigue
  • muscle or joint pains
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea or vomiting
  • temporary loss of smell or altered sense of taste

COVID-19 symptoms are similar to some common illnesses such as a coldflu or allergies.

What's the difference between a rapid antigen test (RAT) and a PCR test? 

A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is generally better at detecting the virus that causes COVID-19.

For a PCR test, a doctor, nurse or pathology collector will usually swab inside your nose and throat before sending the sample to a testing laboratory.

A result is sent by SMS within a few days.

RATs can be used at home and give a result within 30 minutes.

They can be bought at supermarkets and pharmacies. 

RATS detect the presence of specific proteins of the virus and are most accurate when used to test symptomatic individuals.

While they aren't as good at detecting the virus as nucleic acid tests such as PCRs, New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said they were the most convenient and appropriate tests for most people. 

"If you have symptoms and you test negative on a RAT, it is important to seek a PCR test if you are at higher risk of severe disease and eligible for antivirals," she said. 

What are the isolation rules? 

People with COVID are no longer required by law to isolate.

But they can't visit high-risk settings like hospitals or aged and disability care facilities for a week and until they have no symptoms (unless they need urgent medical care). 

CMO says COVID should be treated like other infectious diseases when it comes to work health and safety measures

While it's no longer a legal requirement, the government says anyone with COVID should still stay at home to protect their loved ones and the broader community. 

The advice is to work from home, avoid contact with people who are at higher risk of severe disease, wear a mask when visiting indoor spaces outside the home, and practise careful hygiene. 

So can you still see your family for Christmas if you have COVID? 

You shouldn't if it requires leaving home, having contact with those who are vulnerable such as older people, or having visitors unless they are providing necessary care. 

Anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 can pass the virus on to others.

Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said people who are even slightly unwell should stay home

"Not seeing elderly loved ones at Christmas is disappointing, but it would be distressing if you were to infect them," he said. 

The federal government has also recommended, that while staying home and where possible, people should avoid shared spaces in the house, wear a mask when moving about, wiping any surfaces touched, using a separate bathroom, and having groceries delivered

Dr Chant said even while it was believed her state had passed its latest peak in cases, everyone could take steps to reduce transmission over Christmas. 

"During this holiday period, consider testing to protect your friends and family who may be more at risk of severe disease," Dr Chant said. 

She also advised people to stay up to date with COVID and flu vaccinations, especially if travelling, and using well-ventilated areas when socialising. 

"So open windows and doors, use outdoor spaces for entertaining such as parks and other outside areas," Dr Chant said.

How long is COVID contagious?

You can be contagious for up to 10 days.

The infectious period can vary, but most people are considered infectious from 48 hours before their symptoms start.

COVID is passed on by coughing or by contact with hands, surfaces or objects that are contaminated.

How do you treat COVID? 

Most cases of COVID are mild and can be managed at home the same way people treat a flu. 

That is, rest at home, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve pain and fevers, keep hydrated and take cough medicine if needed.

Some people who are at higher risk may be eligible for antiviral treatments prescribed by a GP. 

Dr Chant said those people should have a COVID-safety plan to get tests and treatment quickly. 

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