- On average, people who are infected with Omicron experience symptoms for a shorter period than those who are infected with prior variants.
- Vaccination reduces the severity and the duration of symptoms.
- Some symptoms, like cough and fatigue, may linger for a few weeks after you test negative for COVID-19. Experts say to see a doctor if they last longer.
During the winter COVID-19 surge, about half of the U.S. population may have been infected with Omicron, Trevor Bedford, PhD, a biostatistician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, told an FDA panel on Wednesday. Now, the Omicron subvariant BA.2 is driving a slight uptick in cases in some parts of the country.
Both the original BA.1 and the subvariant BA.2 are known to cause milder infections than Delta and prior variants.
A preprint study of more than 60,000 people in the United Kingdom indicates that people who are infected with Omicron have symptoms for about two days fewer than those infected with Delta, on average. And Omicron symptoms are slightly different, with more patients reporting runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, and headache.
Here’s what you need to know about Omicron symptom longevity and when it’s wise to seek medical attention.
What Are the Symptoms Specific to Omicron?
Headed into springtime, it can be difficult to tell the difference between seasonal allergies, the common cold, and early symptoms of an Omicron infection.
“It’s possible that symptoms might be so mild people write it off as allergies, just a little case of the sniffles, or a headache due to some other reason,” Laura Morris, MD, family physician and COVID-19 vaccine co-chair at University of Missouri, told Verywell.
Early in the pandemic, studies showed that infections from circulating COVID-19 strains usually began with a fever, followed by cough, nausea and vomiting, then diarrhea. This progression could help health providers distinguish between COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.
Morris said when she sees patients now, they often report a scratchy throat that turns into a sore throat. Congestion and a runny nose follow, along with other symptoms of a classic upper respiratory infection. People infected with Omicron are also less likely to experience fever or loss of taste and smell.
Earlier COVID-19 variants affected the lung tissue more and had a higher likelihood of causing pneumonia and other severe outcomes. Irritation of the lung tissue could cause dry cough and breathlessness, said Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, MHS, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
While Omicron also infects the lungs, it appears to remain much more in the upper airway. This means people infected tend to cough more and produce more phlegm. The increased coughing could be part of the reason Omicron and its subvariants are so transmissible.
“With the earlier variants, those were dry coughs. Now it’s shifting massively to a very mucous-y feeling cough,” Galiatsatos said. “We’ve found that post-COVID cough tends to linger much longer for more tissue destruction. Omicron so far doesn’t seem to have that similar consequence—there’s coughing but usually subsides after a week or two weeks.”
How Long Do Symptoms from Omicron Last?
The average patient will experience symptoms for about five days, Morris said. For some, symptoms last as much as 10 to 14 days. Others experience no symptoms at all.
Morris said symptoms indicative of pneumonia or respiratory failure, like shortness of breath, chest pain, cough tend to show up later, between day five and 10.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who test positive for COVID-19 need only isolate for five days, so long as they have been free of fever (without the help of fever-reducing medications) for at least 24 hours.
But if an individual continues to test positive on a rapid test after those five days, Morris said they’re still infectious and should remain isolated until they test negative on a rapid test.
After leaving isolation, they should continue to wear a mask through day 10 when around others, but can otherwise go about their business.
Unlike last year, most people in the U.S. now have immunity to COVID-19. When the body is primed to recognize the virus, either through vaccination or prior infection, the immune system tends to react more quickly, causing symptoms to appear even before you are contagious.
In some cases, individuals will continue to feel symptoms even when they are no longer contagious.
When It’s Time to Seek Additional Medical Care
For a few weeks after most symptoms recover, you may feel lingering symptoms like fatigue, loss of taste and smell, brain fog, and headaches. If, after feeling better, you experience worsening cough, new fever, new chest pain, or worsening shortness of breath, Morris said to seek medical attention.
“If your symptoms seem like they’re getting better, and then they start to get worse… That’s a good reason to go see a doctor or even go to the emergency room if your symptoms are significant,” she said.
Galiatsatos agreed, saying fatigue and a dry cough may linger for a few weeks after the infection clears. If those and other COVID-19 symptoms persist after several months, it’s time to speak with a doctor.
If new symptoms pop up a few weeks after you recover from COVID-19, they may be due to a different condition, or they could be delayed complications from COVID.
How Vaccination Changes Symptom Development
The role of vaccination against COVID-19 is to prevent the most severe outcomes, like hospitalization and death.
“The immune system is trained to know how to strategically fight the virus, so there’s no bull in a china shop. It has the playbook and knows how to get rid of the virus pretty darn quickly,” Galiatsatos said.
For this reason, vaccinated individuals tend to have fewer or less intense symptoms than unvaccinated sick people, and their symptoms usually resolve more quickly.
Being vaccinated also substantially reduces one’s risk of long COVID-19. Morris said vaccinated individuals are about 50% less likely to get symptoms that linger for a month or longer.
But even vaccinated individuals and those who have a mild case should err on the side of caution to protect others who may be more susceptible to severe disease, Galiatsatos said. This means being diligent about isolation and mask-wearing, and getting tested for COVID-19 after potential exposure.
“If our goal is to get COVID out of the world, we’ve got to do our best to not catch it. And not catching it means wearing a face mask,” Galiatsatos said. “Enjoy life, just do it with a face mask.”
What This Means For You
The best way to protect yourself from getting sick from Omicron and other COVID-19 variants is to be fully vaccinated and receive a booster shot, if eligible. Wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing will also minimize your risk of infection and spreading the virus to others.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.