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COVID-19 disease, symptoms and variants

Learn about COVID-19, how it spreads, who is at risk, what to do if you think you have it, and what resources and support are available to you.

About COVID-19

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. 

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause respiratory infections. These can range from the common cold to more serious diseases.

How COVID-19 spreads

COVID-19 is a new disease, so there is limited natural immunity in our community. This means that COVID-19 can spread quickly.

The virus is usually spread from person to person by:

  • close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
  • touching objects or surfaces that have droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face.

Symptoms of COVID-19

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild to severe. Some people recover easily, and others get very sick very quickly. If you test positive for COVID-19 you may experience:

  • fever
  • coughing
  • sore throat
  • shortness of breath.

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 colds and flu, or allergies. 

See our COVID-19: Identifying the symptoms fact sheet. 

You can use our COVID-19 symptom checker to find out if you need to get tested, or seek medical help.

Check your symptoms

COVID-19 variants

Viruses naturally change or mutate. This can lead to what is known as a variant to the main virus strain. This generally happens where there is a large amount of community transmission.

COVID-19 variants are continuing to emerge. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is responsible for tracking variants of concern and interest.

There are currently 13 named variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Some previous variants of concern were declassified as a variant of concern once further data was available.

The WHO has identified the variants of concern as:

  • Alpha – first found in the United Kingdom
  • Beta – first found in South Africa
  • Delta – first found in India
  • Gamma – first found in Brazil
  • Omicron – first found in South Africa.

Learn more about the Delta and Omicron variants.

Long COVID

Most people who test positive for COVID-19 recover completely, but some people may develop long COVID.

Long COVID is where symptoms of COVID-19 remain, or develop, long after the initial infection – usually after 4 weeks. Symptoms of long COVID can last for weeks or sometimes months, and include:

  • extreme fatigue (tiredness)
  • shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain or tightness
  • problems with memory and concentration
  • changes to taste and smell
  • joint and muscle pain.

It is not yet known how long symptoms of long COVID will last. In a large survey of people in the United Kingdom who had COVID-19, nearly 10% of people reported at least one symptom 12 weeks after their initial infection.

Last updated: 
23 December 2021

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