As the Omicron outbreak ramps up, widespread Covid-19 infections across the country are set to become a reality for the first time since the pandemic began, causing anxiety for many New Zealanders. Dr Lynn McBain explains what to expect if you are infected, and how to manage your recovery.

What happens if you contract COVID-19?

If your test result is positive you will be informed promptly. This is usually the responsibility of the local public health team who try to ring people when the lab has identified a positive result. There may be occasions when the result is notified by your GP or the testing centre where the test was done. Negative results are usually informed by text (or call if no mobile number is supplied) by the clinic where the test was taken.

Most people – adults and children – who contract Covid-19 will be able to stay at home to recover. Care will be provided most often by the primary care (general practice team) with public health support. Health Navigator has a range of resources and these can be accessed without using phone data.

Similar to other respiratory infections, the main symptoms of Omicron are a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and a sore throat. The ZOE COVID study in the UK indicates that the Omicron variant seems to be less likely to result in a loss of sense of smell or taste.

Covid-19 symptoms tend to last longer than a cold – commonly up to 14 days – and the more serious part of the illness is often in the middle period, days 5 to 10. There are also some who experience long Covid with ongoing symptoms. The prevalence of this is unclear, but approximately 1 in 4 people.

Current recommendations for positive cases are 14 days isolation, including 72 hours symptom-free. All household members should get an immediate Covid-19 test and stay at home for at least 10 days after the first positive case in the household has been released. Household members can leave isolation to get tested.

How to prepare and look after yourself and family

First, ensure all eligible people have been vaccinated and that adults over age 18 receive booster doses when they’re due.

If you have other medical conditions, look after these well, particularly if you have diabetes or any lung conditions.

Check you have a supply of medications you need, including paracetamol, and it may be worthwhile having a thermometer at home to take your temperature. But please don’t over stock, pharmacies will remain open and medications can be supplied to you in a contactless manner.

Have food supplies in the house, especially meals that are simple to prepare. Think ahead about who you would ask to help deliver supplies and groceries for you.

Be tested early if any symptoms develop and go home and stay home until you recover from your symptoms even if you test negative. This is to reduce the spread of other respiratory illnesses.

Management at home

Most people at home with Covid-19 will be assisted and monitored by their GP via telehealth. This means regular contact- usually by telephone supplemented by email and videocalls. Some will have been given kits containing monitors for oxygen saturation if symptoms are worsening. These pulse oximeters are small devices used on a finger to measure oxygen levels in the blood and are supplied from a central source,with instructions for those who are moderately unwell or at higher risk of complications.

If you are infected, rest, fluids, and medication for pain and fever are self-care measures you can take. Water is the best fluid. Paracetamol (or Ibuprofen as another option) is preferred because it does not interact with any other medications. It can be taken for fever or body aches.

Breathing can be hard. You may feel breathless even at rest or find it hard to catch your breath when moving around your home. Changing positions regularly (every 30 minutes to two hours) can help. Sitting or partial elevation is better than lying flat on your back.

Most people will improve and recover, but this illness does take time, so recovery will be gradual, as you build up activity again after the initial couple of weeks.

If at any stage there is significant deterioration, including severe trouble breathing, severe chest pain, confusion, temperature persistently over 40 degrees, and dehydration (not passing urine), these are reasons to call for help immediately.


When it is time to return to work or school, or your usual activities, you may be much more tired than you expect. It is important to restart gradually and prioritise the activities that are most important to you.

Muscles may be weak after the illness. There is a section in Health Navigator about restarting exercise. This emphasises that the return to exercise should be gradual with at least one week at each level of exertion.

Most people get better and return to their normal life and activities. If someone was not fully vaccinated prior it is important to complete the vaccination course, this can be done four weeks after recovery.

Some people have ongoing symptoms of Covid-19 for up to 12 weeks and then go on to recover. Others develop post-Covid syndrome with symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness, cognitive impairment and a range of other body symptoms. Supported self-management and rehabilitation is needed. These conditions, known as long Covid, are areas of active research.

Associate Professor Lynn McBain is Head of Department, in the Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, at the University of Otago, Wellington.

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