As COVID-19 mutates, becoming even more contagious through novel strains, the virus is also finding new ways to present itself in patients.
It's important to note what COVID-19 symptoms may appear as, considering the latest BA.5 variant remains the country's dominant driver of infections, and that the pandemic is facing its third winter — a season that has been typically marked by a surge in cases.
While some symptoms have become more or less noticeable since the start of the pandemic, officials say that respiratory symptoms from the virus remain the most prevalent.
"We're continuing to track this," Chicago's top doctor, Dr. Allison Arwady, said in an update last month. "In the more recent cases of COVID -- which, again, are these newer variants -- there's a few things that I noticed. First of all, the biggest one is that people are so much less likely to get seriously ill. And that means that the immune system is better at as being able to protect against against that severe illness."
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In terms of what symptoms the city is seeing more of as cases continue, Arwady noted that the virus is mainly presenting in the upper respiratory tract.
"We're seeing a lot of more sore throats, fatigue, still seem some fever, and runny nose," Arwady said. Arwady also stressed that while headache and rash can be symptoms of COVID, neither of them are the "one of the top ones."
And though Arwady said the Chicago Department of Health isn't necessarily seeing new symptoms reported, there are COVID symptoms that were associated with earlier variants that seem to be circulating less.
"We're seeing less of losing taste and smell than we were early on, but we still see some of it," Arwady said. "As it continues to present like a cold, or like a flu, there is no way to know if it is COVID or something else, unless you get a test."
As for the symptoms that often stick around the longest? A cough.
"That's the thing that's going to last the longest, almost always," according to Arwady. "A cough tends to be the most lingering effect. That's true whenever you have any viral infection. You can be feeling totally better, and you're still going to have some irritation."
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, early symptoms of COVID typically include fatigue, headache, sore throat or a fever.
A study by researchers at the University of Southern California found fever may be first, as well as a cough and muscle pain. Then, those infected will likely experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Unlike other respiratory illnesses such as MERS and SARS, COVID patients will likely develop nausea and vomiting before diarrhea, the researchers found.
Digestive symptoms, in some instances, may be the first sign someone has contracted COVID. They have been known to develop at the beginning of an infection, with respiratory symptoms possibly following a day later, according to an article from Emerson Health.
Still, some symptoms, such as shortness of breath, have become less prevalent as the virus continues to mutate.
"In terms of symptoms and what people have it's been so incredibly heterogeneous," said Dr. Sharon Welbel, the director of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control for Cook County Health. "I find with omicron we do know that still the most common is fever, cough - not so much shortness of breath anymore."
Experts do caution patients that the severity, or even the type, of initial symptoms can vary widely from person to person.
"I think it's really variable depending from person to person," Welbel said. "It depends on age, it depends on comorbid illness, it depends on vaccine status, if one has been infected before potentially their you know, immune system is revved up more... So, I think that there's no way to protect it to predict it."
The CDC says that the median time for the appearance of symptoms in a patient with the different lineages of omicron could be just three days.
In general, symptoms will typically appear 2-to-14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC. How long they last, however, can depend on the person, the severity of their infection and whether or not they end up with long COVID.
"Some people say they feel better in a day, some people say they still have lingering symptoms after three weeks," Welbel said.
Symptoms of the virus include:
-Fever or chills
-Shortness of breath
-Muscle or body aches
-New loss of taste or smell
-Congestion or runny nose
-Nausea or vomiting
Patients are urged to seek emergency medical attention if they experience:
-Persistent chest pain or pressure
-Inability to wake or stay awake
-Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds