As the symptoms of COVID have changed since the start of the pandemic, many are wondering what to expect next as the variant is expected to continue mutating into the fall and winter. What are the experts looking for?
As the pandemic enters its third winter, Chicago health experts noted on Tuesday that new variants can bring about changes in symptoms — in fact, they already have.
The latest BA.5 variant remains the main driver of cases in the United States, but as new omicron-specific recalls become readily available, health officials are monitoring whether a new variant will emerge.
Although upper respiratory tract symptoms are currently the most telling sign of the virus, some changes in symptoms have been observed as the virus progresses.
“We see a lot of things happening with the changing virus, you know,” said Dr. Isaac Ghinai, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health who oversees COVID-19 testing and lab surveillance. “Omicron and its sublines are an example of the virus changing quite a bit, and there are indications that different lines of the virus may cause slightly different symptoms.”
Ghinai said differences in symptoms may also be affected by the introduction of vaccines and their subsequent widespread use nearly a year into the pandemic.
“There are indications for example, with omicron, that loss of taste and smell is less common than it was with some of the earlier lines. All of this is also likely impacted by the fact that many more people are vaccinated than before,” said Ghinai.
Regardless of changes in symptoms, Ghinai said getting vaccinated and boosted can significantly improve symptoms of the virus if infected.
“Certainly, the severity of symptoms if you’re vaccinated is much less and the severity of symptoms if you’re boosted is even less, which can kind of change the look,” Ghinai said.
As for the symptoms that often persist the longest? A cough.
“It’s going to last the longest, almost forever,” Chicago’s top doctor, Allison Arwady, said at a press conference earlier this month. “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. Dr. Sharon Welbel, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control for Cook County Health, said earlier this month that fever and cough have become more common symptoms in recent months.
“In terms of symptoms and what people have, it’s so heterogeneous,” Welbel said. “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 may 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, others 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