If You Have These 2 Symptoms, Get Tested for Omicron, Experts Warn
The new variant might not present with typical COVID symptoms.
From the flu to the common cold, there are a number of illnesses spreading across the U.S. right now. But when waking up sick, the one question on everyone's mind right now is likely, "Do I have COVID?" Since the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned about tell-tale signs of the coronavirus like cough, shortness of breath, and loss of smell or taste. But as the virus mutates and evolves, the symptoms it produces can change as well. Doctors warn that symptoms of the new Omicron variant and the common cold—which circulates at a high rate during the winter season—can look the same, but there are two symptoms that mean you should get tested for COVID right now. Read on to find out what signs of Omicron you need to look out for.
You should get tested for Omicron if you have fatigue and headache.
It can be hard to differentiate between COVID, cold, and flu symptoms, especially with Omicron causing the majority of new infections. But Bruce Patterson, MD, a virus expert and founder of cell diagnostic company IncellDX, told the Deseret News that there is one symptom that is consistent among all of the COVID variants, including Omicron. "The one thing that's always present with COVID is fatigue," he explained. And amid a surge of new Omicron cases, Patterson said there was another symptom he is spotting more and more. "I'm seeing a lot of headaches," he added.
Fatigue and headache can be symptoms of other illnesses, but with Omicron spreading so rapidly and producing breakthrough infections, these two symptoms indicate you should get tested for the virus—especially if you know you've been exposed to someone with COVID.
"It's worth isolating yourself and getting a couple of tests," epidemiologist Abdul El-Sayed, MD, told CNN. "Don't test immediately after you might have been exposed. Once you're getting symptoms, you want to test one day, and then test again the next day just to be sure as you're isolating."
There are also symptoms that are less likely with the new variant.
Not having certain tell-tale COVID signs doesn't mean you don't have the virus, however. "I haven't seen a lot of the tremendous shortness of breath [with Omicron]," Patterson said. And according to Patterson, other once common COVID symptoms are not as likely with the variant.
In fact, data from the U.K. COVID Symptom Study has found that Omicron appears to show a departure from "the classic three" COVID symptoms of fever, cough, and loss of smell or taste. Researchers in Norway reported similar data among breakthrough Omicron cases after a large Christmas party. Out of 87 confirmed or probable cases, only over half reported a fever, 23 percent experienced loss of taste, and just 12 percent had a decline in smell.
You should still get tested if you have one specific symptom.
Not many people are experiencing loss of smell or taste with the Omicron variant. But this was a strong sign of the Delta variant, which is still circulating in the U.S. According to the CDC, 58.6 percent of infections in the country are estimated to be the result of Omicron—meaning that around 40 percent are likely to be caused by the formerly dominant Delta.
"Loss of taste and smell is another common and distinguishing feature, though some studies suggest there may be less cough and loss of taste and smell with the Delta variant compared to the ancestral strain," Joyce Sanchez, MD, Froedtert & MCW infectious disease specialist and director of the Froedtert & MCW Travel Health Clinic, said.
And if you do experience this symptom, you need to get tested for COVID because it's unlikely to be a sign of any other illness. "Even though with Omicron, it's less likely that you're going to lose your sense of smell or sense of taste, those are really specific for COVID-19," El-Sayed told CNN.
The CDC has changed its recommendations for COVID quarantining.
If you are having COVID-like symptoms or test positive for COVID, it's important to know what you should do next. On Dec. 27, the CDC updated its recommendations for quarantining, changing some of its earlier timelines. Whether vaccinated or not, the agency says you should stay home and get tested if you develop any symptoms that have been attributed to COVID.
If you've tested positive for the virus, you should quarantine for five days at home as well, regardless of vaccination status. "If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after 5 days, you can leave your house," the CDC says, noting that you should continue wearing a mask around others for five additional days. The only exception is if one of your symptoms is a fever. "If you have a fever, continue to stay home until your fever resolves," the CDC adds.