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What Are the Symptoms of Omicron?

Signs of a COVID infection caused by the variant can come on fast and mimic a cold for some

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Omicron has been circulating in the U.S. for just about a year now, and in that time, researchers have learned more about the variant, including the symptoms it can cause.

It isn’t always the case that a new version of the coronavirus brings about a new batch of symptoms. In fact, when comparing variants, there are usually more symptom similarities than there are differences, says Scott Roberts, M.D., assistant professor and associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine.

And for the most part, that seems to hold true with omicron and its subvariants, including the now-dominant BA.5. But health experts have noted a few differences between the omicron family and its predecessors.

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For instance, some studies report that loss of taste and smell — once a telltale sign of COVID-19 — occurs less often in omicron infections. It doesn’t even make the list of the top five symptoms in the ongoing ZOE COVID Study, according to a Sept. 13 update.  And when comparing rates of smell and taste loss during the earlier phases of the pandemic to more recent variant waves, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University found that the chances of the symptom occurring were 17 percent for omicron, 44 percent for delta and 50 percent for the alpha variant.

A sore throat and hoarse voice may also be more common among people infected with omicron, compared with delta, researchers in the U.K. discovered. Their study, published in The Lancet, also suggests that brain fog and dizziness are less prevalent in omicron cases.

Symptoms of Omicron BA.5 variant

The symptoms that arise from a case of COVID-19 caused by the now-dominant omicron strain — known as BA.5 — don’t seem to differ from those caused by its parent variant or any of the other omicron offshoots, experts say. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the most common symptoms of BA.5 are:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue  

Is omicron a mild variant?

Omicron and its subvariants are highly contagious — they’re even known for reinfecting people who recently got over COVID-19. Still, omicron appears to cause less severe illness than previous variants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes. Research also suggests that people who are infected with omicron are sick for shorter periods of time than those with delta.

That said, lots of different factors can affect the severity of symptoms, the CDC says, and vaccination status is one of them. By the time omicron arrived near the end of 2021, we had a “more highly vaccinated population,” says Laraine Washer, M.D., an infectious disease physician at University of Michigan. And ever since, vaccine and booster eligibility has only expanded.

Health officials are now recommending that everyone 12 and older get an updated booster shot that’s designed to better target omicron and its subvariants.

Another consideration: Shortly after omicron burst on the scene, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized two antiviral medications that can help keep a mild infection from progressing to a serious one. More than 1 million prescriptions for these antiviral pills were filled at pharmacies between Dec. 23, 2021, and May 21, 2022, a CDC report shows.

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And while many people who have come down with an omicron infection dodged serious COVID-19 complications, it’s important to note that omicron is not mild for everyone. Hundreds of Americans are still dying from COVID-19 each day. Hospitalization rates have decreased dramatically since their peak in January, but still, thousands of individuals are still being admitted daily for COVID-19 — and the vast majority of them are older Americans.  

Cold and flu season adds to confusion

Although milder symptoms are better in many respects, omicron has made it more difficult for people to tell what’s COVID-19 and what’s just a cold — or the flu or a whole host of other respiratory illnesses that circulate this time of year.

Roberts says the solution is to “take any symptom seriously, even a mild symptom.” And if you start sneezing or feeling feverish, take an at-home test. A simple swab of the nose can tell you whether you have COVID-19 in about 15 minutes. Individuals with Medicare can get up to eight free tests a month, and many private insurance plans also cover them. Don’t have insurance? Check with your local health center or testing site (find one on covid.gov/tests) — many are offering them for free. 

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If your test comes back positive, ask your doctor if you’re eligible for a COVID-19 treatment, such as one of the new antivirals — even if your symptoms are mild. Starting the medications right away can significantly reduce your risks for being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Staring at a negative result, even with symptoms raging? It’s possible you have COVID-19 but took the test before the virus was detectable. The FDA recommends taking another test 48 hours after the first. A PCR test (short for polymerase chain reaction), administered at doctors’ offices or testing sites, can also confirm your suspicions.

Another option to consider if you test negative for COVID-19 but feel ill is a flu test, Washer says, since there are also treatments specific to this illness that can help you feel better. And like COVID-19, the influenza vaccine can help prevent serious flu complications from ever occurring. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot before the end of October; adults 65 and older should ask for the high-dose version.

Finally, don’t forget all the preventive efforts that can help you dodge an omicron infection in the first place. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines and avoid poorly ventilated areas. Also, opt for outdoor activities over indoor ones, and if transmission rates are high in your area, wear a mask in indoor public places.

How to Protect Against the Omicron Variant

Editor's Note: This story, originally published Jan. 10, 2022, has been updated to reflect new information.

Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.

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