Am I run down, do I have a cold – or is it COVID?

You wake up with a sore throat — should you still reach for a RAT? After all, they’re a bit of a nuisance, and they’re not inexpensive.

If you’re young, fully vaccinated or a COVID-19 veteran, it may have become tempting to skip a test here and there. But that approach can have a cost – both to vulnerable people you encounter and to you if you have risk factors.

While some symptoms are strong indicators of COVID, it’s still worth getting a test.Credit:iStock

Australian Medical Association vice president Chris Moy says we’ve become too complacent and that authorities are concerned about the prospect of rising hospitalisations as winter approaches.

Moy says testing is the only way to know for certain if you are COVID-19 positive or simply run down.

Some symptoms are a stronger indication of COVID-19 as opposed to other respiratory infections. A high fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea and a loss of taste or smell without a blocked nose are more aligned with COVID-19 than a sore throat, runny nose or cough.

Associate Professor of Medicine Paul Griffin at The University of Queensland says you should get tested regardless of symptoms.

“We can’t differentiate one viral infection from another based on any specific symptoms,” says Griffin.

He says regular testing is critical for people such as healthcare workers and teachers who interact with large numbers of people.

So which test should you take if you’re feeling under the weather?

While RATs are easily accessible (a five-pack costs roughly $24) and perform fairly well, Griffin says they can have limited sensitivity. Even with a negative result, people with symptoms should consider further RATs or additional PCR testing.

PCR tests, freely available through state clinics, are better than RATs at detecting COVID-19 early in the infectious period.

Presenteeism – when people show up at their workplace despite being or feeling unwell – may be increasing the risk of workers getting sick and spreading the disease, Moy says.

Griffin says when it comes to COVID-19 testing, our perception of risk is not quite high enough.

Regular testing is crucial if you have multiple risk factors and want the best chance of avoiding serious progression of the disease through antiviral treatments.

Antiviral medications Lagevrio and Paxlovid – effective in reducing hospital admissions for people with COVID-19 who are at high risk of progressing to severe disease – were provisionally approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in January.

Moy says they must be administered quickly if they are to be effective. The National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce advises that most antiviral tablets should be taken within five days of symptoms appearing. Paxlovid is yet to be listed but Lagevrio is listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and can be prescribed by a GP.

Those who are immunosuppressed, unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or in higher-risk categories should frequently test, Moy says, because of the potential of these new therapies to curb ICU admissions and potential deaths.

Regardless of your situation, the message is clear: next time you’re wondering whether a case of the sniffles warrants a test, it probably does.

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