For almost three years, the world has seen the coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic evolve into many variants, while vaccination and prior infection have altered our experiences with the disease.
Over time the top COVID-19 symptoms have changed as well.
In an updated report issued on December 13, the U.K.-based Zoe Health Study (formerly the COVID Symptom Study) identified the most common current COVID-19 symptoms on data gathered over the course of 30 days prior to December 5 from more than 4.8 million people who use a special app to report signs of infection.
According to the most recent analysis, symptoms of infection with the prevailing omicron variant often resemble those of cold and flu.
Some coronavirus symptoms that were predominant with the delta variant, which preceded omicron, now rank way down on the list. These now less-common symptoms include loss of smell (among other sensory changes due to COVID-19, such as those that cause a metallic taste in the mouth). Shortness of breath and fever are no longer in the top 10 at all.
At the end of October, the Zoe Health Study (which involves researchers from King’s College London, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and Stanford University in California) indicated that people who are vaccinated experience fewer and possibly different symptoms over a shorter period of time than people who are unvaccinated.
Top 10 COVID-19 Symptoms
These are the most common health effects indicated by contributors who tested positive for COVID-19.
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Blocked (stuffy) nose
- A cough without phlegm
- A cough with phlegm
- A hoarse voice
- Muscle aches and pains
- An altered sense of smell
The Zoe editors pointed out that sneezing and a runny nose, previously thought to be unrelated to COVID-19, are now predominant symptoms. They warn that sneezing is a key way that the virus spreads.
“Try to cover all coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of your elbow to minimize the spread of droplets. And avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth until you’ve washed your hands,” wrote the Zoe editorial staff.
Why Have the Top COVID-19 Symptoms Changed?
“It is not entirely clear why this shift in symptoms is occurring, but the Zoe data are consistent with what many of us clinicians are seeing in our patients with COVID-19 infection over the past few months,” says Dean Winslow, MD, an infectious-disease specialist and a professor of medicine at Stanford University.
Dr. Winslow explains that the reason for symptom changes is probably “multifactorial,” and includes the virus’s ability to evolve in order to maximize transmission, and higher levels of immunity in the population due to vaccination and prior infection.
You May Think You Have a Cold or the Flu, Not COVID-19
Winslow warns that because omicron symptoms tend to mimic those of cold or flu, people may not suspect they have COVID-19. “Even mild, common, cold-like symptoms could be due to COVID-19, so people should be tested for the virus if they experience even mild respiratory symptoms,” he says — even if they are vaccinated.
Winslow stresses that the pandemic is not over, and that to avoid infection people should consider avoiding crowded indoor environments and wearing masks in such situations.
He adds that these measures also provide protection against other germs, such as those that cause the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“Also, get the new bivalent COVID-19 booster,” says Winslow. “While it may not provide complete protection from infection against some of the newer omicron subvariants, it will help protect against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.”
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