Key Takeaways

  • Expect to see a rise in COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths this fall and winter.
  • Symptoms of COVID still vary from mild to severe. Some common ones include sore throat, fever, and cough.
  • Keep COVID tests on hand so you can determine whether you have COVID or another infection, such as flu or RSV.

Past years have proven that fall and winter are peak seasons for COVID-19, influenza, and other respiratory viruses. Back-to-school time may shuffle up social interactions and create new exposures, and people will retreat indoors as the weather cools.

Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University, told Verywell you shouldn’t put COVID-19 out of your mind just yet, if ever. The virus is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but fortunately, there are tools available to keep you safe: namely, vaccines, medication, and testing.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from cough and runny nose to stomach aches and diarrhea. Adam Ratner, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at New York University Langone, told Verywell this means the threshold for testing for COVID-19 should be low.

“Especially because numbers are on the way up, people should move COVID back into their minds in terms of something they should be thinking about testing for if they’re not feeling well,” Ratner said.

Omicron Subvariants Are Still Circulating

Hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 have recently begun to increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but not as much as in prior years. Scientists also use wastewater surveillance to monitor the emergence of new variants.

The subvariant of COVID-19 that’s dominant right now is a descendant of Omicron, Ratner said. Called “EG.5,” the subvariant was first reported in February 2023 and looks similar to previous iterations of Omicron.

This is what we expect. There’s nothing that we’ve seen at this point that indicates that EG.5 causes substantially different or substantially more severe disease.

Compared to older variants, Omicron and its subvariants are more transmissible with a shorter incubation period (time between exposure to the virus and symptom onset). But it’s hard to precisely gauge the transmissibility of EG.5, Nuzzo said, because changes in behavior (i.e., fewer people testing and isolating if they’re sick) can also drive an uptick in cases.

“I would say that while we’re seeing an increase in infections, we are still nowhere near where we were last year, thankfully,” Nuzzo said.

Sore Throat and Fever May Be Early Symptoms

When you account for Omicron’s shorter incubation period, people tend to develop symptoms within three days of exposure to the coronavirus, on average. These data don’t exist yet for the specific EG.5 subvariant, but experts say it’s behaving similarly to past iterations of Omicron.

Because the symptoms of COVID-19 can vary from person to person, it’s hard to know whether what you’re feeling is COVID-19 or something else. In the early days of the pandemic, the inability to smell or taste was a hallmark of COVID-19 infection, but that’s not so common now, Columbia University epidemiologist Maureen Miller, PhD, told Verywell.

Early COVID-19 symptoms may include sore throat, dry cough, and fever, Miller said, and studies have found that symptoms may be less severe these days thanks to the protection afforded by vaccines. According to self-reported information from a symptom-tracking app, people infected with the Omicron variant may recover more quickly than those infected with past variants. Most people reported recovery within one week of symptom onset.

Other Common COVID Symptoms Include Cough and Shortness of Breath

According to the CDC, the severity of COVID-19 can span from mild sniffles to life-threatening illnesses. The agency has identified a wide range of COVID symptoms, including:

  • Fever or chills
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Congestion or runny nose

While all of these symptoms could be considered common, you certainly don’t have to have them all to have COVID, Nuzzo said.

“You could have a scratchy throat and nothing else,” she said, or you could have every symptom on the list except for a sore throat. Don’t rule out COVID based on the symptoms you don’t have—even one symptom is reason enough to take a test.

Less Common COVID Symptoms May Include Nausea and Vomiting

The CDC also lists nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and new loss of taste or smell as possible symptoms of COVID-19. However, loss of taste or smell is no longer considered a common symptom of COVID infection, Miller said.

Gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and vomiting aren’t as common as a cough, but COVID is known for breaking the rules. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may be more common symptoms for children, Ratner said, but adults can have them too.

“It’s just really unpredictable,” Nuzzo said. “How you’re going to react [to COVID] is different for everybody.”

Why You Should Still Test for COVID

If you’re feeling sick, you should test for COVID-19. Even with a symptom like fatigue, which can occur with almost any sickness, it’s worth testing to rule it out. “I’ve heard people saying, ‘Oh well, I’m not going to bother testing because it doesn’t really matter if what I have is COVID or not,’” Ratner said. “I think that’s not true.”

One of the reasons you should take a COVID-19 test if you feel sick is that there are medications you can take to feel better, Ratner said. Getting tested is the first step toward getting healthy, especially for people with a higher risk of severe infection.

People may have a higher risk of getting sick if they are older than 60, immunocompromised due to illness or medication, or if they have asthma or a chronic lung disease, among other health conditions.

“If you’re really starting to feel crummy and having difficulty breathing, especially if you are over 65 and you test positive, you should contact a primary care provider because Paxlovid is still working,” Miller said. Taking Paxlovid, a prescription oral antiviral pill for a COVID-19 infection, can help with recovery and decrease the risk of severe complications.

Additionally, getting tested is still essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19 as a potential peak season approaches. People should still isolate if they have COVID-19 and try not to expose others in the community, Ratner said.

Above all, the best thing you can do to prepare for the next COVID-18 wave is to ensure you’re up to date on your vaccines, Ratner added. The initial vaccines and the bivalent booster provide strong protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19.

What This Means For You

As much as you’d like to forget about COVID-19, you should be prepared for a small spike in cases this fall and winter. Get tested if you have symptoms, and make sure to get vaccinated if you’re not already.

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