The recently discovered Omicron variant is fueling a new surge of COVID-19 cases across the nation — healthcare providers in more than 19 American states (and 50 countries in total) are currently reporting official infections traced back to this new version of the novel coronavirus, according to public statements made by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials.
And because it hasn’t even been a full month since officers at the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the variant a concern, scientists still have a lot to learn about Omicron. Earlier reports, however limited, indicate that Omicron variant infections may differ just slightly from cases experts have seen stem from the spread of Delta and other earlier variants that were of concern in 2021.
The genetic makeup of Omicron is vastly different compared to other COVID-19 strains that experts have seen, explains Gwen Murphy, M.D., Ph.D., an epidemiology expert and director currently at testing company Let’sGetChecked. The earliest tests on Omicron have indicated that it may not cause as severe of symptoms experienced due to Delta infections — in South Africa, where the first instance of Omicron infections were reported, the nation’s Medical Research Council shared testimony that the majority of patients impacted by Omicron infections didn’t require ventilators or emergency oxygen to breathe while in treatment.
While health officials in America may believe it’s too soon to tell if most Omicron infections are indeed mild, there is more weight to earlier reports that Omicron infections tend to trigger symptoms of fatigue and body aches over others like breathlessness or loss of taste and smell. This is proving to be especially true for those vaccinated individuals who experience breakthrough COVID-19 illness.
Below, experts explain everything they’ve learned about Omicron symptoms and infections so far — and what Americans should know if they expect they’re experiencing an Omicron-related sickness.
What are some symptoms of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant?
To be clear, all health officials are in universal agreement — the potential list of symptoms for those affected by an Omicron SARS-CoV-2 infection remains largely the same. Janice Johnston, M.D., co-founder and chief medical officer at Redirect Health, says that the Omicron variant may infect individuals differently, but that it’s not uncommon for subsequent symptoms to be the same as those we’ve seen earlier in the pandemic. “We’ve seen this for years with the influenza virus; every patient is not the same in terms of holistic health, immunity level and ability to fight the virus,” she adds.
While the list of potential symptoms related to Omicron infections is the same, limited data suggests that a few symptoms — chiefly fatigue, feeling overtired or exhausted and pain across multiple muscle groups on the body — are much more common than breathlessness or a loss of taste and smell associated with previous strains of the coronavirus.
But most of the research being presented currently is limited and comes from anecdotes from healthcare providers on the ground in South Africa, explains Nicholas Kman, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“The reporters from providers described South African patients had severe fatigue, but no loss of taste or smell,” he tells Good Housekeeping. “It does seem that [Omicron] symptoms may be more mild — issues like scratchy throat, fatigue or headache — compared to more severe symptoms such as fever and respiratory failure. But these symptoms also depend on your vaccination status, age, comorbidity conditions and history of natural infections.”
Research and data provided over the holiday season may provide a clearer picture of which COVID-19 symptoms are truly most commonly experienced during an Omicron infection. Dr. Murphy notes that the first studies conducted on Omicron infections in South Africa were conducted on university students, or younger individuals who may be predisposed to “more mild disease,” she adds.
All experts asked agreed: Symptoms for unvaccinated individuals may be more severe compared to someone who has been fully vaccinated earlier this year, or those who have recently received a booster shot. The South African cases being touted by experts include separate cases in vaccinated locals, according to the New York Times.
It’s highly unlikely that doctors will be able to help you determine if you are suffering from an Omicron COVID-19 infection specifically without laboratory tests, even if fatigue is your primary symptom. Dr. Kman says that many respiratory viruses act similarly, including common influenza, which is why testing is still so important at this stage of the global pandemic.
Does the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spread faster?
More research is needed, but early signs suggest that this variant of SARS-CoV-2 does indeed spread at a faster rate. This may be due to how the virus’ protein has mutated, particularly “the spike protein, or how the virus infects cells,” Dr. Johnston says. She also adds that it may be that the Omicron strain has similar features to the common cold or adenoviruses, which are highly transmissible.
“Estimates based on experience in South Africa allow scientists to postulate that the Omicron variant is at least three times more infectious than original versions of SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Kman adds. “It may be possibly more contagious than the Delta variant, though [Delta] remains the dominant strain in the U.S., so it’s unclear if this is the case.”
Just because Omicron may spread at a faster rate than earlier diseases, Dr. Kman stresses that it doesn’t mean those who are impacted by this specific virus will have worse COVID-19 symptoms automatically. “Mutations may make [SARS-CoV-2] enter your cells or replicate more quickly, but it still gives you the same illness once inside your body,” he says, adding that variants are expected to remain consistent with a suite of symptoms noted below in the future.
What are the most common symptoms of COVID-19?
Fatigue may be more closely associated with Omicron infections currently, but it’s still a hallmark clue for any COVID-19 infection — and should be discussed with your healthcare provider since it may be mistaken for a common cold or occasions like suffering through a hangover.
CDC officers have told Americans that more data are needed to know if “Omicron infections… cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants.” The most common symptoms for COVID-19 infections, including those caused by Omicron, as listed by CDC officials are below:
- Fever or body chills
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue, or muscle or body aches
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Any of these symptoms — in any order — may appear within two to 14 days after being exposed to SARS-CoV-2. They may be all equally severe or present different severities depending on the symptom.
The best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 (including an Omicron-induced infection!) and severe symptoms or death remains receiving a full vaccination. Those who have been vaccinated earlier in 2021 are likely now qualified to receive a booster dose now, which is proving to be a crucial defense, according to early research. Additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine is reported to provide enough antibodies to block even Omicron variants, according to a Washington Post report on data released by Pfizer and BioNTech released this week.