The most common COVID symptoms doctors are seeing this holiday season

By | December 21, 2023

Experts share the most common COVID-19 problems they encounter in their patients.

Experts share the most common COVID-19 problems they encounter in their patients.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are on the rise just in time for the holidays.

Behind the increase is a new strain called JN.1, which accounted for 21.4% of cases in the United States as of Dec. 9, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. JN.1 is a descendant of BA.2.86, which first appeared in late summer. Both are part of the omicron line.

The World Health Organization has called JN.1 a “variant of interest,” but also noted that “the additional public health risk posed by JN.1 is currently assessed as low at a global level.” In other words, don’t panic, but know that as the number of cases increases, the more likely you are to get sick or be exposed to someone who is sick.

As we head into the busiest time of the year, it is critical that you are aware of the symptoms currently associated with COVID-19 infections. They have changed since the pandemic began.

“I think the good news is that most of the patients we’re seeing with COVID seem to have milder upper respiratory symptoms,” said Dr. Jonathan D. Grein, director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

Because people are immune to infections and vaccinations, symptoms also become nonspecific, says Dr. Joe Khabbaza, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at the Cleveland Clinic. This makes it difficult to distinguish COVID-19 from other viral diseases, Khabbaza noted.

So what are the top red flags to look out for this winter? Below, doctors share the symptoms they’re seeing most often this holiday season:

Many COVID symptoms these days feel like cold symptoms.

Dr. Sarah Hochman, hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health and division chief of infectious diseases at Tisch Hospital in New York, previously told HuffPost that most COVID-19 symptoms are similar to what you would experience with a cold, which is still true today. The most common symptoms are:

  • Accumulation.

  • Running nose.

  • A sore throat.

  • Dry cough.

  • Headache.

  • Pain in the body.

  • Fatigue.

  • Fever.

It is striking that loss of taste and smell occurs less often. While it can still happen, it is certainly not as common as it was at the beginning of the pandemic.

There is a healthy degree of overlap between COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, “so sometimes it can be very difficult to know what you may have been infected with based on symptoms alone,” Grein previously told HuffPost. COVID-19 tests remain the best way to find out if you have the virus.

Shortness of breath and chest pain may still occur (and these require medical attention).

For people who become very ill, worrisome symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain may be a reason to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Khabbaza said people experiencing these symptoms have become more common recently.

“In recent weeks, at least in my area, more people have ended up in intensive care [intensive care unit] with COVID pneumonia than I can really remember in about a year and a half — we’re seeing that classic pneumonia,” Khabbaza said. “Even though they end up in intensive care, we see that fewer ventilators are used than with the previous variants.” He added that the number of people in intensive care is lower compared to earlier stages of the pandemic.

“People seem to get better gradually with supportive care, so their ICU stays have also been shorter. That is something we have noticed in our ICU in recent weeks,” Khabbaza said.

Those at risk of hospitalization and serious illness are the people most at risk since the pandemic began: the elderly, people with medical conditions, people receiving chemotherapy and other medications that can weaken the immune system, those being treated for autoimmune -immune diseases and people who have undergone a transplant, Khabbaza said.

A COVID-19 vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting seriously ill this winter.A COVID-19 vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting seriously ill this winter.

A COVID-19 vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting seriously ill this winter.

A COVID-19 vaccine can help reduce your chances of getting seriously ill this winter.

Vaccination is a way to reduce the severity of the disease.

A COVID-19 vaccine is still your best defense when it comes to protecting yourself. Updated shots are available to address circulating variants. According to the CDC, the new vaccines are also expected to protect against JN.1. You can visit vaccines.gov to find a COVID-19 shot appointment near you.

You can also get the RSV vaccine, which is available for adults 60 years and older and infants up to 8 months of age, and the flu shot, which is recommended for people 6 months and older. It’s not too late in the season to get your vaccines.

If you do get COVID-19, you can start antiviral treatment to reduce the severity of your illness.

“To get [the antiviral treatment] Paxlovid asked… if you are symptomatic, or even at higher risk for severe disease, this can really make a big difference in the course of the disease and certainly minimize the duration of symptoms, minimize the severity of symptoms and, for those who are, higher risk for many of them could keep them out of the hospital,” Khabbaza said.

We are fortunate that many people have developed immunity from vaccination, infection or a combination of both, but Paxlovid is still an effective treatment for controlling the severity of COVID-19, he said.

If you do get COVID-19, Paxlovid should be started within five days of symptoms, so let your doctor know as soon as possible if you test positive.

Finally, take action to stay healthy.

The basic hygiene that we practice – such as washing hands – remains important. Also consider wearing a mask in crowded areas. And most importantly, if you are not feeling well, stay home. Protect others around you from getting sick.

An earlier version of this story appeared in November 2023.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance may change as scientists discover more about the virus. Consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most recent recommendations.

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