As the cases of the COVID-19 omicron variant continue to rise across the country, people are wondering how the symptoms differ from illness caused by the delta mutation. Experts say that the symptoms of both diseases are similar, but there are subtle differences in how omicron affects its victims.
The lightning speed of omicron’s spread has many Americans worried, especially now on the cusp of holiday travel and gatherings.
“This is hitting at a very inopportune time,” Dr. Katherine Poehling, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina told NBC News.
Poehling says that early evidence shows for people who are up to date with their vaccines, the symptoms may be mild illness that resemble a common cold such as cough, fatigue, and congestion or runny nose.
According to The New York Times, most PCR and rapid antigen COVID-19 tests can identify omicron but the Food and Drug Administration has noted that several tests do not. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to symptoms. Recent data released from South Africa suggests that people with omicron usually report having a scratchy throat along with nasal congestion, a dry cough and muscle pain along the lower back.
But Ashely Z. Ritter, a geriatric nurse practitioner and chief executive officer of Dear Pandemic, points out that people afflicted with the delta variant also suffered these symptoms. Other experts predict that as more omicron cases are reported, the symptoms between variants will overlap.
The one major difference researchers have uncovered is the loss of taste and smell. With the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, 48% of patients reported loss of smell and 41% reported loss of taste. So far, data on vaccinated people in Norway who have been stricken with omicron found that only 23% of patients reported loss of taste, and 12% reported loss of smell, says the Times.
Experts believe that the difference in symptoms may be due to a person's vaccination status, rather than the strain of the virus. Maya N. Clark-Cutaia, an assistant professor of nursing at the New York University Meyers College of Nursing, who has been following the pattern of symptoms in COVID-19 patients, says that vaccinated patients with delta or the original virus tend to have headaches, congestion, sinus pressure and sinus pain. Those who are not vaccinated are most likely to experience shortness of breath and cough, along with flu-like symptoms.
Clark-Cutaia says that she has spoken to vaccinated omicron patients who report that their symptoms resemble a “really bad cold,” while unvaccinated sufferers have the same shortness of breath and flu-like symptoms reported with previous strains.
Another difference is that omicron has a shorter incubation period. People who are exposed to the variant come down with symptoms within three days, versus four for the delta variant and five days for the original coronavirus.
According to The Atlantic, the briefer the incubation period, the more likely the virus will spread, say experts. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explains that a shorter incubation period “makes a virus much, much, much harder to control.”
South African data also reveals that although children usually suffer milder symptoms with omicron, they were also 20% more likely to be hospitalized with the variant compared to the first wave of the pandemic.
Dr. Waleed Javaid, associate professor of medicine and infectious disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City warns that people may still get severe illness from omicron, so it’s important that those who develop even mild symptoms get tested and stay home.
“It is still a coronavirus. We’re still in a pandemic,” he said.
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