COVID Symptoms Have Changed: Here's What Doctors Are Seeing Now
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COVID-19 is doing what viruses do: Constantly changing. Mutated forms of the Omicron variant are now causing most of the new infections in the U.S., where COVID-related hospitalizations increased by 8% in the last week, according to CDC data. In the last few weeks, the FDA has approved updated vaccines to address these new variants, and doctors are reporting that symptoms aren't quite what they used to be. Here's what they're seeing now.
This week, Bobbi Pritt, a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the Mayo Clinic, told the UK Express that the five most common COVID symptoms include headache, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, and fatigue. But other experts have noticed some weird symptoms and distinctive patterns forming.
New Scientist reported this week that the latest variants are also producing some unusual symptoms, including rashes, eye problems, irritation, and diarrhea.
Doctors say that COVID has become increasingly difficult to distinguish from the common cold or the flu. Previous telltale symptoms—such as a dry cough or the loss of taste or smell—have become less common. The virus seems to have become milder and concentrated in the upper respiratory tract instead of the lungs, NBC News reported on Sept. 16.
"It isn't the same typical symptoms that we were seeing before. It's a lot of congestion, sometimes sneezing, usually a mild sore throat," Dr. Erick Eiting, vice chair of operations for emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City, told the news outlet. Sore throat usually comes first, followed by congestion, he said.
Along with congestion, some patients report having a headache, fatigue, muscle aches, fever, chills, or post-nasal drip that may lead to a cough. But coughing isn't a primary symptom, said Dr. Grace McComsey, vice dean for clinical and translational research at Case Western University. She has seen that fatigue and muscle aches usually last a few days, while congestion can sometimes last a few weeks.
"Just about everyone who I've seen has had really mild symptoms," said Eiting of patients he's seen. "The only way that we knew that it was COVID was because we happened to be testing them."
The most prevalent subvariant circulating now is EG.5 (also known as Eris), followed by a strain called FL.1.5.1 (nicknamed Fornax on social media). Both of them are subvariants of the original Omicron strain, which became widespread in November 2021. EG.5 and FL.1.5.1 seem to be driving the latest increase in COVID infections: According to CDC data, EG.5 accounts for about 25% of cases nationwide, and FL.1.5.1 is 14%.
Researchers are watching another subvariant closely. BA.2.86 (known as Pirola) is a highly mutated strain of Omicron. But it hasn't infected enough people to show up on CDC statistics. The states where the new variant has been reported are Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Ohio. It doesn't seem to be causing more severe disease, but it's too soon to tell if it's producing different symptoms.
The FDA has approved new versions of COVID vaccines for this fall. They began rolling out to healthcare providers and pharmacies last week. Experts recommend that everyone over six months of age get one of the new shots at least two months after their last COVID booster or previous infection.
Although hospitalizations are rising, experts are quick to point out that the levels are nowhere near the epidemic's highest. "At the peak of COVID, we were having 25,000 Americans a week die from it. We're still having 600 a week die from COVID, which is significant but obviously a lot less than 25,000 a week," said Dr. Robert Frenck, director of the Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.