After a relatively quiet summer, COVID-19 appears to be gaining traction again in the U.S., with the latest subvariant EG.5 (Eris) causing increases in cases and hospitalizations across the country.
The most recent variant proportion estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), EG.5 makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases int the U.S., accounting for just over 20% of all illnesses.
Hospitalizations are starting to tick up as well: The most recent data, from August 12, shows 12,163 new COVID hospitalizations—a 17% increase from the following week.
As with most new COVID variants and subvariants, one question seems to come to mind first: "What are the symptoms?"
Though all COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of variant, are unlikely to differ too much, it's difficult to say for sure which symptoms are specific to EG.5 right now—but here's what doctors have been seeing recently as the new subvariant gains steam throughout the U.S.
While there is not strong data yet on the kinds of symptoms people are experiencing right now, doctors are anecdotally reporting mostly mild or common symptoms of COVID-19.
Kristina K. Bryant, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist with Norton Children's Infectious Diseases, told Health that she's mostly seeing patients with symptoms similar to the prior Omicron subvariant.
Those symptoms involve mainly upper respiratory complaints, like sore throat, cough, congestion, and runny nose.
"Some people even said they thought they had allergies," Bryant said. "But EG.5 bears watching. It is the dominant subvariant."
As the SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated throughout the pandemic, certain symptoms have become more common, and some have become less common. But by and large, the virus still primarily affects the respiratory system.
"The picture of COVID (the clinical presentation) seems to be pretty much the same from beginning to end and it resembles influenza and RSV," said William Schaffner, MD, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "The major impact of this virus is on the respiratory track, particularly the lungs and the lung can respond in only so many ways."
When the virus surfaced in 2020, loss of taste and smell was a common symptom. Now, more than three years later, that specific symptom has significantly decreased in the population.
New research published in the journal Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, found that the risk of losing one's sense of smell and taste from recent COVID-19 omicron variants is 6–7%—and that moving forward, it's possible that loss of taste and smell may no longer predict a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Additionally, gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea seem to be less common as time goes on.
Doctors have also reported fewer cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). From 2020 to 2022, the CDC reported that MIS-C occurred in 1 of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 children and adolescents who had SARS-CoV-2 infection. The condition has become rarer since the start of the pandemic.
The fact that MIS-C has diminished may be due to the fact that many children have been exposed to COVID-19 or have been vaccinated, said Schaffner.
Because it's difficult to determine whether you have COVID-19 by symptoms alone, the best way to verify an infection is through testing. All COVID-19 tests—including PCR tests administered by medical professionals and rapid tests administered at home—should be able to detect EG.5.
If you experience trouble breathing or respiratory issues, or if you are at high risk for severe illness due to underlying conditions or because you are pregnant, it's especially important to get tested, said Schaffner.
“If [your test] turns out positive, please contact your healthcare provider because we have the medicine Paxlovid that can help protect you from this illness getting more severe and putting you in the hospital,” he added.
And as for prevention, experts agree that the newest iteration of the vaccine—based on the XBB variant—will also help to prevent severe illness from EG.5.
"Remember these vaccines do a better job at preventing severe disease than milder infection," said Schaffner. "But that's the point; we want to keep you out of the hospital and this updated booster will help you get through the winter."
It's also important to remember that SARS-CoV-2 will likely keep evolving, and that there will be certain variants that make some years worse than others when it comes to symptoms and severity of disease.
“Like with flu, some years we have a bad flu season and we have some people with just mild cold symptoms while others develop severe lower respiratory tract problems,” said Bryant. “I think ultimately, we are going to see the same with SARS-CoV-2; some seasons are going to be worse than others.”