The current COVID-19 variants remain very transmissible and particularly worrisome as we head into the holiday season.
As of now, BA.5 remains the dominant strain in the country ― but just barely, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 make up just under half of new COVID-19 infections.
The current strains, which are all omicron subvariants, are unique for reasons beyond their transmissibility, too. They also can cause some different symptoms compared to earlier strains of the virus.
Here, experts share the COVID-19 symptoms that are most common right now and other differences they’ve seen with these current variants.
Like other recent variants, a sore throat is a very common symptom with BA.5, BQ.1.1 and BQ.1.
According to David Souleles, the director of the COVID-19 Response Team at the University of California, Irvine, the most common symptoms of recent COVID infections include congestion, fatigue, headaches and runny noses.
Some of the most ubiquitous issues, though? “Here at [University of California, Irvine] Contact Tracing and Vaccine Navigation Services, campus cases are reporting sore throats and coughs quite frequently,” he said.
However, it’s important to remember that this may not be exclusive to BA.5., BQ.1.1 or BQ.1. It takes the scientific community time to compile recent infection data since variants change so quickly, Souleles said. And the medical community doesn’t know on an individual patient level who has what variant. Plus, your COVID-19 PCR test or at-home test will only tell you if you are positive or negative, not what variant you had.
Overall, people feel pretty sick or wiped out when they have it.
“[This strain is] causing bad cold to flu-like illness,” said Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at Mayo Clinic. And exact symptoms and severity tend to vary depending on many factors, including age, medical history and infection history.
But, Souleles said, “if you talk to the average person who had COVID, many will tell you it’s the sickest they’ve ever been without going to the hospital.”
Think persistent headache, frequent cough and restless nights as a result. Plus, the overwhelming anxiety that having COVID-19 brings. Additionally, there’s also the risk of long COVID. It’s estimated that about 16 million people may have the condition after being infected with the virus. So, even though the symptoms may be described as or seen as mild, there are still issues that can happen.
You probably won’t lose your sense of taste and smell.
“Loss of taste and smell was a very common symptom that was reported in earlier variants of COVID-19,” Souleles said. “We’re hearing that a lot less than we used to.”
This likely has to do with how the virus has mutated, and how it interacts with the parts of our brain that govern taste and smell, he added.
It appears people are getting infected and seeing symptoms faster.
According to Souleles, people are testing positive after exposure at a faster rate than earlier in the pandemic.
A year ago, it “might have been more like seven to 10 days after their exposure period,” he said. Now, most people will test positive three to five days after exposure.
“We’re definitely seeing a more rapid progression to symptoms after exposure.”
In fact, a recent analysis found that COVID-19′s incubation period — the time between infection and symptoms — has shortened drastically since the pandemic began. “The incubation periods of COVID-19 caused by the alpha, beta, delta and omicron variants were 5.00, 4.50, 4.41, and 3.42 days, respectively,” the study stated.
‘Breakthrough’ infections aren’t leading to issues or symptoms that land people in the hospital as frequently as previous variants.
These subvariants are able to evade antibodies, which is why people who are vaccinated or who have been previously infected are getting sick, Tosh noted.
But, the reason most people aren’t experiencing outcomes like hospitalizations or death has to do with the built-up immunity that many of us have, whether that’s from vaccinations, prior infections or both. And that protection goes beyond antibodies; it’s also because of our T-cell immunity, which increases every time we get vaccinated, boosted or infected.
“Antibodies keep people from getting infected,” Tosh explained. “T-cells keep people from getting super sick” and requiring hospital care.
T-cells are far more robust than antibodies in keeping people from getting very sick from different variants, including from the current subvariants, he said.
Those who are unvaccinated are still at high risk for severe outcomes.
“We know that the vaccines continue to provide pretty good protection from the more serious outcomes that would result in hospitalization or death,” Souleles said. And when you look at hospital data across the country, the majority of folks who end up in the hospital because of COVID-19 are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
“[Unvaccinated people] are getting more of those severe outcomes that we might have seen earlier in the pandemic when we didn’t have vaccines or medicines like Paxlovid,” he said.
Keep in mind that it’s not guaranteed that unvaccinated people will become more ill, there is just a higher chance that they will face more severe outcomes.
Because of the sheer number of vaccinated people in the country, you may notice an uptick in vaccinated individuals in hospitals. Still, vaccinated people are getting hospitalized at a much lower rate than those unvaccinated. According to recent research, in April 2022, unvaccinated people were 3.5 times more likely to be hospitalized.
Immunocompromised folks are still at high risk of severe outcomes, too.
High-risk people are more likely to face severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death. While some people may report cold-like symptoms from a COVID-19 infection, those who are immunocompromised could face a much more grim reality.
That’s why it’s important for immunocompromised individuals to get all of their vaccinations and make sure they’ve gotten the bivalent booster, and for everyone to follow smart health precautions — especially when coming into contact with someone who is high-risk.
To stay healthy, use the mitigation measures that we know work.
Vaccinate, boost, wear a mask, test before attending events, test three to five days after you have had a known exposure, and isolate if you’re sick, Souleles said.
Plus, with overlapping symptoms, it’s hard to know if you’re dealing with COVID-19, RSV or the flu, which makes testing for COVID-19 even more important, he added.
“If you have symptoms and test negative, it is a good idea to test again in 48 hours if your symptoms persist,” Souleles said, adding that if you test positive, you should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for isolation. And if you test negative but still have symptoms, it’s still a good idea to stay home if you can and wear a mask if you have to go out.
Souleles stressed that everyone over 5 should also get their bivalent booster, which is made from a new formula that protects against the original strain of COVID and the new omicron variants. It’s available to people who are at least two months out from their last COVID-19 shot.
“All of those things that have applied throughout the entire pandemic apply to BA.5 and all of the variants of omicron. We have the tools to control this, we know what to do.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
This story has been updated.