The most common symptoms of COVID-19 appear to be much milder than they were at the start of the pandemic, according to new data. So what might look like a mild cold — or the flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — might actually be COVID-19. And that may be because new variants of coronavirus are taking over.
Two emerging subvariants of omicron – BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 – now cause nearly 70% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The previously dominant BA.5 variant now accounts for only 11% of cases in the country.
As these new variants continue to spread, the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 may be a little different from what we saw earlier in the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about how things have changed and how to stay safe as the virus spreads this winter.
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 right now
At the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 was accompanied by a short list of characteristic symptoms, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell. According to the CDC, these are still some of the symptoms you might experience with a coronavirus infection, but, as new data from the ongoing ZOE Health Study suggests, the range of potential COVID-19 symptoms has changed in recent years.
As of December 13, smartphone data from the ZOE Health Study shows that the 10 most commonly reported symptoms of COVID-19 these days are:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- To sneeze
- Cough without phlegm (a dry cough)
- Cough with phlegm (a wet cough)
- Muscle aches and pains
- Alteration of smell
Previously, the ZOE Health Study regularly shared the five most common symptoms experienced by its users. “But over time, we’ve seen that these change frequently, so we’re now reporting the top 10 symptoms, which remain more stable,” the company said in its report.
Experts generally believe COVID-19 symptoms have gotten less severe over time, Dr. Otto Yang said, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, TODAY.com said previously.
This may be because omicron subvariants tend to “stay in the upper respiratory tract more,” Yang explained, meaning the virus doesn’t affect the lungs as much as it used to.
Being up to date on vaccines and boosters — or having some level of protection from a previous infection — can also make COVID-19 symptoms less intense, Yang said. “A fully vaccinated and up-to-date person may have such mild symptoms that they don’t even test themselves,” he added.
When to test for COVID-19
Because COVID-19 shares symptoms with so many other illnesses circulating this time of year, you shouldn’t hesitate to get tested at home.
“What people really need to understand is that right now we’re in flu season and RSV season – and we still have COVID hanging around,” said Dr. Emily Volk, President from the College of American Pathologists, at TODAY.com previously. So if you start noticing any of these common signs, like a cough, congestion or sore throat, now’s a good time to get a quick test, she said.
If you’re exposed to someone with COVID-19, you should get tested about five days after exposure, the CDC says, even if you don’t have noticeable symptoms at that point.
Amid the winter holiday season, you can use rapid home COVID-19 tests before gathering with friends and family to make your gatherings even safer, especially for people with compromised immune systems or those with other risk factors. most likely to have severe symptoms of COVID-19.
This is especially helpful for people in areas where the level of community transmission of COVID-19 is moderate or high, according to the CDC, which currently applies to about half of the country.
Since December 15, American households can order four free COVID-19 home tests from the government to help reduce the spread of the virus. If you haven’t already, now is the time to refuel.
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