About COVID-19

Information on COVID-19 including symptoms, spread and where to get help.

Last updated: 22 July 2021

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What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 that can affect your lungs, airways and other organs. SARS-CoV-2 was first recognised in China and is thought to have originated in animals.

Coronaviruses are a large and diverse family of viruses which cause illnesses such as the common cold. Other recent diseases caused by coronaviruses and thought to be transmitted from animals include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has undergone genetic mutations over time as it adapts to humans. Some of these mutations, such as the Delta variant, can spread more easily than the original virus, may cause more severe disease, and may evade vaccine-derived immunity. Read updates on aspects of the virus, including variants in COVID-19 Science News.

COVID-19 symptoms

The symptoms of COVID-19 are like common illnesses such as a cold or influenza. You may have one or more of the following:

  • sneezing and runny nose
  • new or worsening cough
  • sore throat
  • fever (at least 38˚C)
  • shortness of breath
  • temporary loss of smell
  • altered sense of taste.

Less typical symptoms may include diarrhoea, headache, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, or confusion/irritability.

Symptoms tend to arise after 5 days but can take up to 14 days to show after a person has been infected. The virus can be passed onto others before they know they have it – from up to two days before symptoms develop.

Where to get help

If you think you have COVID-19 call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or talk to your doctor.

To find your local testing station visit Healthpoint.

Read more about COVID-19 assessment and testing

How COVID-19 spreads

The virus that causes COVID-19 is mostly spread in particles that escape from an infected person’s mouth or nose when they breathe, speak, cough, sneeze or sing.

These particles range in size. Larger and heavier particles (droplets) quickly fall to the ground or other surfaces within seconds or minutes. Smaller particles (aerosols) can remain airborne for minutes to hours.

Infection occurs in three main ways:

  • breathing in air that contains infectious particles
  • infectious particles landing on your mouth, nose or eyes through being coughed or sneezed on, for example)
  • touching your mouth, nose or eyes when your hands have been contaminated by the virus. (This is either through direct contamination, or indirectly by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus).

The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus, and our understanding of how it spreads has changed over time. Spread by aerosols appears to be more important than previously thought. 

Current evidence suggests that catching COVID-19 from surfaces is the least common, but it is still important to clean surfaces to reduce the risk. The length of time the virus can survive on surfaces depends on many factors including temperature, humidity and UV or sunlight. 

Conditions that affect COVID-19 spread

A person is most infectious and more likely to spread the virus in the few days around the time that symptoms develop. This means that some individuals can be contagious before they develop symptoms.

The risk of becoming infected increases the closer you are to a person and the longer you are close to that person, especially if this contact occurs in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

Most large droplets will fall to the ground within 2 metres. However, in some situations the virus has been transmitted to people more than 2 metres away, or to people who passed through a space soon after the infectious person left.

Things that increase the risk of this ‘long-range’ infection include:

  • being in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation within which fine particles containing virus can build-up
  • being near an infected person breathing heavily (for example, due to exercise, singing or shouting)
  • being exposed to these conditions for a longer period of time.

The ‘Three Cs’ are situations where spread of the virus is most likely are:

  1. closed spaces with poor ventilation
  2. crowded places with many people nearby
  3. close-contact settings, especially where people have close-range conversations, singing or shouting.

The risk is highest when these factors overlap: for example, in small, poorly ventilated spaces with lots of people talking loudly or shouting. The risk is lower outside, with fewer people, if they are widely spread. 

People at higher risk of severe illness

People with underlying health conditions are most at risk of COVID-19 becoming a severe illness. You are more vulnerable if you:

  • are over 70 years old with a medical condition
  • live in an aged care facility where spread can occur more easily
  • have a medical condition and/or compromised immunity. 
  • are pregnant.

Other risk factors include ethnicity, smoking and obesity.

If you have an underlying health condition and at high risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 you may get early access to the COVID-19 vaccine. This is along with those who are over 65, work at the border or in frontline health care roles. Read about getting the vaccine.


Treatment and immunity

There is no specific treatment for COVID-19. Most people will be able to get better at home in isolation to avoid passing it onto others. More severe cases may need medical care in hospital.

Once a person is infected with COVID-19, their body will usually produce cells (antibodies) that ‘remember’ the virus. We assume these antibodies give the person immunity from the virus but it is not currently clear how long immunity lasts. 

Most people with COVID-19 recover completely and return to normal health. However, some people report a diverse range of symptoms beyond the time of ‘recovery’. For more information about evidence emerging on the long-term health impacts of COVID-19, read about long COVID.

Read more about infection and immunity.

Getting vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine is free, voluntary and available to everyone in New Zealand aged 16 and over.

This vaccine is highly effective if people have the two doses that are recommended. That means, if you do become infected with SARS-COV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, you are far less likely to fall seriously ill or transmit the virus to others.

When you can get a vaccine depends on your age and situation, such as if you have an underlying health condition or work at the border. Different regions will also start at different times.

Read more about getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

How to protect yourself and others

To protect yourself and others it’s important to: 

  • stay home if you’re sick, and get a test 
  • get vaccinated as soon as you can 
  • wear a face covering (on public transport and flights)
  • use basic hygiene:
    • regularly wash and dry your hands 
    • cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue or into your elbow 
    • clean frequently touched surfaces  
  • practise physical distancing in public when possible 
  • keep track of where you’ve been (with the COVID Tracer App).

Read more about how to protect yourself and others.

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