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COVID Symptoms Now Follow a Distinct Pattern, Doctors Report

Patients say one symptom shows up first, while other familiar symptoms don't show up at all.

Early in the COVID pandemic, it was tricky to know if you'd been infected, largely because symptoms resemble so many other common illnesses, and tests were hard to come by. The flu-like symptoms could signal a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection, with COVID tests the only reliable way to tell if you actually had the virus. Some unusual side effects eventually helped distinguish COVID—like a loss of taste and smell—but doctors are saying this isn't the case anymore. Now, COVID symptoms are changing and appear to follow a distinct pattern. Read on to find out what patients notice first.

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Doctors say symptoms progress from one to another.

Woman having sore throat, tonsillitis, feeling sick, suffering from painful swallowing, angina, strong pain in throat, loss of voice, holding hand on her neck, isolated on studio blue background.

Speaking with NBC News, doctors noted that COVID is now primarily affecting the upper respiratory tract and typically begins with a sore throat. This symptom can range in severity, with some describing an unfamiliar "burning sensation" in their throat, Grace McComsey, MD, vice dean for clinical and translational research at Case Western University, told the outlet.

The sore throat then clears up just in time for congestion to take over, which may be accompanied by other symptoms, like fatigue, aches, fever, chills, headache, and post-nasal drip (which can lead to a cough). According to McComsey, the muscle aches and fatigue can last a few days, but congestion might stick around a bit longer.

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Other symptoms are less common.

Sick woman trying to sense smell of half fresh orange, has symptoms of Covid-19, corona virus infection - loss of smell and taste. One of the main signs of the disease.

While doctors are noticing a pattern in how COVID symptoms appear, they're also noticing that certain symptoms are less prominent.

A dry cough used to be a strong indicator of a COVID infection, as well as the loss of taste and smell, but these aren't as common anymore. According to McComsey's estimations, only about 10 to 20 percent of her COVID patients report loss of smell or taste, which is a sharp drop from the 60 to 70 percent who reported it during the early days.

"It isn't the same typical symptoms that we were seeing before. It's a lot of congestion, sometimes sneezing, usually a mild sore throat," Erick Eiting, MD, vice chair of operations for emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City, told NBC News.

Eiting also told the outlet that fewer patients are reporting diarrhea, which was another COVID indicator.

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Symptoms are changing, but they're also less severe.

Medical worker wearing personal protective equipment doing corona virus swab on female patient - Covid19 test and health care concept

Changing symptoms can make it a bit more challenging to distinguish COVID from other common illnesses. But there's a bright side, as fewer patients are requiring hospitalization, while more patients are experiencing mild symptoms.

"Just about everyone who I've seen has had really mild symptoms," Eiting told NBC News about his urgent care patients. "The only way that we knew that it was COVID was because we happened to be testing them."

Doctors also told NBC News that more patients recover without treatment or the antiviral Paxlovid pill. Michael Daignault, MD, an emergency physician at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, added that during the "mini-surge" we've been experiencing since July, 99 percent of younger patients with upper respiratory symptoms are sent home "with supportive care."

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Why are cases milder now?

Young man waiting to get his vaccine by an unrecognizable nurse in the hospital

Milder symptoms are likely due to increased immunity, some doctors say.

"Overall, the severity of COVID is much lower than it was a year ago and two years ago. That's not because the variants are less robust. It's because the immune responses are higher," Barouch said.

Changing symptoms may also be due to changing variants of COVID. According to findings from the 2022 ZOE COVID Study published in The Lancet, sore throat and hoarse voice were more prevalent in patients infected with the Omicron variant as opposed to Delta. On the other hand, loss of smell was much less frequently reported by those infected with Omicron.

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Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Abby Reinhard
Abby Reinhard is a Senior Editor at Best Life, covering daily news and keeping readers up to date on the latest style advice, travel destinations, and Hollywood happenings. Read more
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