If You Have Omicron, This Is When You'll Begin to Feel Symptoms

A study finds the time between infection and symptoms has shortened somewhat from other variants.

Even though it only emerged a month ago, the Omicron variant has drastically altered the pandemic's trajectory. Data is beginning to paint a clearer picture of how the latest version of the virus is different, including being more transmissible than Delta and evading the defenses provided by currently available vaccines. But similar to previous variants, Omicron also appears to differ in what symptoms it causes and how soon they tend to develop after infection. Read on to see how the latest viral offshoot's timeline could change the way we handle COVID-19.

RELATED: 70 Percent of Hospitalized Omicron Patients Have This in Common.

Preliminary research shows that symptoms from infection with Omicron usually develop within three days.

A young woman sitting on the couch holding her head while sick with COVID symptoms

Part of what has made COVID-19 such a difficult virus to tackle is its cycle within the people it affects. Infamously, some remain completely asymptomatic while still being contagious, unknowingly spreading the virus without realizing it. In those that show signs of illness, previous variants such as Alpha and Delta typically take five or four days before those infected have symptoms, respectively. But according to Ryan Noach, MD, CEO of South Africa's largest private health insurer, Discovery Health, anecdotal evidence suggests that Omicron may have an even shorter window, with symptoms from the variant typically showing up three days after exposure, The Washington Post reports.

A shorter incubation period could make Omicron harder to stop than previous variants.

A doctor administering a nasal swab for a COVID test on a young woman

While the difference of one day between exposure and the appearance of symptoms may not feel like a huge change, some experts warn that it could have major consequences. They explain that a shorter incubation period likely means someone infected with the Omicron would also become contagious faster than before. This can make it easier for the virus to spread while also making it "much, much, much harder to control," Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told The Atlantic.

The shortened window also means that a quick turnaround on checking for the virus could be more essential than ever. "If Omicron has a shorter incubation period, that's going to wreak havoc on how we test for it and deal with it," Omai Garner, PhD, a clinical microbiologist in the UCLA Health system, told The Atlantic.

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It may be difficult to detect the virus before symptoms develop using testing.

Man getting a drive up COVID test

Unfortunately, even the existing tests we'll rely upon to get ahead of Omicron may be more difficult to use than before. A shorter incubation period also means that low levels of a virus in the body can quickly jump, making a negative test received in the morning irrelevant by the evening. This means that the positive test results many used within one-to-three-day windows previously would no longer be feasible and make the grace period awarded by a negative test result quite short-lived, Melissa Miller, PhD, a clinical microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, told The Atlantic.

Omicron may have some tell-tale symptoms that are slightly different from other variants.

woman, fallen ill is staying at home wrapped in a blanket socially distancing and quarantining herself, feeling her throat hurt and being sore, having a cup of hot tea

For now, experts recommend testing before any indoor gatherings, if you've been exposed to someone who's infected, or if you become sick. But what kind of symptoms should you be looking for as signs of an infection with Omicron? Preliminary data from a South African study conducted by Discovery Health analyzed more than 211,000 patients who tested positive for COVID—including roughly 78,000 who were confirmed to have been infected with the Omicron variant—and found that having a scratchy throat as opposed to a sore throat was among the most commonly reported symptoms, Noach explained during a news briefing. He added that nasal congestion, a dry cough, and muscle pain or aches in the lower back were also regularly reported as early signs of the variant, The Washington Post reports.

But as Omicron continues to surge in new areas around the globe, doctors are getting more information about the variant and its symptoms. In London, where officials confirmed the viral offshoot became the dominant variant on Dec. 14, experts said there were reports of certain similar symptoms in patients.

"Things like fever, cough, and loss of smell are now in the minority of symptoms we are seeing," Tim Spector, MB, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London who runs Zoe, the world's largest COVID symptom study, told BBC Radio 4's Today on Dec. 15. "Most people don't have classic symptoms," he said, adding that most were reporting similar signs to a common cold, including headaches, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, and sneezing.

RELATED: 70 Percent of Hospitalized Omicron Patients Have This in Common.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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