As COVID-19 mutates, compounding to become highly transmissible through new strains, the virus is also finding new ways to present itself in patients.
It’s important to note what the symptoms of COVID-19 may look like, given that the latest BA.5 variant remains the country’s main driver of infections, and the pandemic faces its third winter – a season that has generally been marked by an increase in cases.
While some symptoms have become more or less noticeable since the start of the pandemic, officials say respiratory symptoms of the virus remain the most prevalent.
“We continue to follow this,” Chicago’s top physician, Dr. Allison Arwady, said in an update last month. “In the most recent cases of COVID – which, again, are these new variants – there are a few things that I have noticed. First of all, the most important is that people are much less likely to fall seriously ill. And that means the immune system is better able to protect itself against this serious illness.”
As for the symptoms the city is seeing more of as cases continue, Arwady noted that the virus primarily presents in the upper respiratory tract.
“We are seeing a lot more sore throat, fatigue, it still seems like a fever and a runny nose,” Arwady said. Arwady also pointed out that while headaches and rashes can be symptoms of COVID, none of them are “one of the main ones”.
And while Arwady said the Chicago Department of Health doesn’t necessarily see new symptoms being reported, there are symptoms of COVID that were associated with earlier variants that seem to be circulating less.
“We’re seeing less loss of taste and smell than when we started, but we’re still seeing some of it,” Arwady said.
“As it keeps presenting like a cold or like the flu, there’s no way to know if it’s COVID or something else, unless you get tested.”
As for the symptoms that often persist the longest? A cough.
“It’s the thing that’s going to last the longest, almost always,” according to Arwady. “Coughing tends to be the most lingering effect. This is true whenever you have a viral infection. You may feel totally better and you will still have some irritation.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, early symptoms of COVID typically include fatigue, headache, sore throat, or fever.
A study by researchers at the University of Southern California found that a fever could be the first, along with a cough and muscle aches. Afterwards, those infected will likely experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Unlike other respiratory illnesses such as MERS and SARS, COVID patients will likely develop nausea and vomiting before diarrhea, the researchers found.
Digestive symptoms, in some cases, may be the first sign that a person has contracted COVID. They are known to develop early in an infection, with respiratory symptoms possibly following a day later, according to an Emerson Health article.
Still, some symptoms, such as shortness of breath, have become less frequent as the virus continues to mutate.
“In terms of symptoms and what people have, it’s incredibly heterogeneous,” said Dr. Sharon Welbel, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control for Cook County Health. “I find that with omicron we know the most common are always fever, cough – plus as much shortness of breath.”
Experts warn patients that the severity, or even type, of initial symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.
“I think it’s really variable from person to person,” Welbel said. “It depends on the age, it depends on the comorbid disease, it depends on the vaccination status, if one was infected before potentially their you know, the immune system is more activated… So I think it there’s no way to protect it to predict it.”
The CDC says the median time to onset of symptoms in a patient with the different omicron lineages could be as little as three days.
In general, symptoms will usually appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC. However, their duration may depend on the person, the severity of their infection, and whether or not they end up with long COVID.
“Some people say they feel better within a day, some people say they still have lingering symptoms after three weeks,” Welbel said.
Symptoms of the virus include:
– Fever or chills
– Shortness of breath
– Muscle or body pain
-New loss of taste or smell
– Congestion or runny nose
-Nausea or vomiting
Patients are advised to seek emergency medical attention if they experience:
– Persistent chest pain or pressure
– Inability to wake up or stay awake
– Pale, gray or blue skin, lips or nail beds