One somewhat heartening fact right now is that many COVID infections can be mild. Of course, that doesn’t erase how devastating the virus has been, the fact that long-haul COVID can happen with even a mild case, and how much we have all lost and are still losing.
Mild cases have existed since the outset, and they’re definitely around now ― especially thanks to vaccines and boosters that help prevent severe illness. The unvaccinated are nine times more likely than the fully vaccinated to be hospitalized with severe COVID, according to current estimates.
What does a mild infection look like now compared to earlier versions of the virus? Wondering what symptoms you should be on the lookout for, even if you’re fully vaccinated? Here’s what you need to know now:
Fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell continue to be hallmark COVID symptoms.
COVID symptoms can pop up anywhere between two and 14 days after an exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but on average, it takes about five or six days. Many of the mild symptoms you should be looking for within that window are those we’ve heard about all along: fever and/or chills, a cough and shortness of breath — though all of those can range in intensity.
Loss of taste and smell continue to be really common mild cases, too. Some estimates suggest that more than half of people who have really mild cases lose their sense of smell to some degree.
Sniffles, sneezing, headaches and GI symptoms are common now, too.
While COVID is a respiratory virus, many people present with mild signs that have nothing to do with the organs and tissues that help them breathe. The CDC includes congestion, headaches and GI symptoms, like nausea or vomiting, on its list of most common symptoms.
“We have seen an evolution in COVID symptoms themselves,” said Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician with One Medical in Arizona.
She’s personally treated patients who’ve come in with symptoms they thought couldn’t possibly be COVID — like, a runny nose they chalked up to seasonal allergies, or diarrhea they attributed to a stomach bug — who ultimately did test positive for the virus.
The challenge, of course, is that those symptoms are similar to what people do experience when they get a cold, the flu, a stomach bug and so many other common illnesses that circulate during the colder months.
“There’s a range of symptoms” and “tremendous overlap,” Bhuyan said.
Experts say just a single symptom is enough to warrant testing.
Because it’s pretty much impossible to distinguish between a cold and a breakthrough COVID infection based on symptoms alone, experts like Bhuyan said it is essential that people get tested.
“I’ve had patients with one symptom who think, ‘This can’t be COVID. I’m vaccinated.’ Then they’ll come in for testing,” Bhuyan said, and in some instances, they have, in fact, had a breakthrough COVID infection.
So Bhuyan recommended that you get a COVID test if you have any symptoms, particularly if you’re in an area of high transmission, even if you’ve just got the sniffles or a headache. One symptom is enough.
It’s not just individual doctors who urge that kind of caution; the CDC does, too. If you have any symptoms, get tested, the agency says. Fortunately, the growth of at-home testing options makes that logistically simpler, although PCR tests remain the gold standard.
If it is COVID, it’s recommended you isolate for 10 days or until you test negative. That being said, some people believe we are making vaccinated people with mild breakthrough infections isolate for too long. It can be profoundly challenging to step away from work and family for 10 days, and emerging evidence suggests that people who have mild breakthroughs are unlikely to contribute to an outbreak after more than a few days.
For now, however, it’s really important to err on the side of testing if you have any symptoms at all and — if you happen to test positive — isolate accordingly.
It’s unclear right now how omicron could change this.
Experts are learning about omicron, the new variant with 30-plus mutations, in real time. Early reports have been encouraging, suggesting omicron symptoms might be milder than delta. But health officials say it is too soon to know. They’ve also warned that the variant could change the course of the pandemic.
That is why prevention strategies remain so critical. “I encourage people to get boosted,” said Bhuyan, adding that only about one in four American adults have been at this point. (Eligibility for the Pfizer booster was just expanded to 16 and 17-year-olds.) Continue to wear a mask in indoor settings, and don’t ignore symptoms, she said.
“Our best weapon,” Bhuyan added, “has always been to take [this virus] seriously.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.