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Omicron symptoms: How the signs of the Covid variant are different to Delta and other coronavirus strains

The i 1 day ago David Hughes

The rise of the Omicron variant caused a major spike in UK Covid cases in the build-up to New Year as it spread across the nation.

First discovered by scientists in South Africa at the end of November, the strain has been found to be more transmissible and evade vaccines more easily than its predecessors.

Soaring infections led to the introduction of new Covid restrictions around the UK (although nations are now beginning to ease the measures) as well as problems with the availability of tests.

As well as its increased transmissibility, the symptoms of Omicron appear to be slightly different to previous variants – here’s everything you need to know.

What are the Covid symptoms listed by the NHS?

According to the NHS, the main symptoms of Covid-19 remain as they have been for most of the pandemic:

  • High temperature: This means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature).
  • New, continuous cough: This is defined as coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual).
  • Loss or change to your sense of smell or taste (anosmia): This means you have noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.

However, leading health experts have warned that the official guidance is not extensive enough, and risk people spreading the Omicron variant unwittingly by dismissing them as signs of the common cold.

Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid study and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, previously told i he finds it “very odd” that Government campaigns do not list other signs.

He said: “I don’t understand why the NHS posters never mention the cold-like symptoms which are the main sign of the Omicron variant. It is very odd when we are supposed to be trying to curb the spread of this virus.

“As a result, people who are experiencing cold-like symptoms are dismissing them and waiting for signs such as a fever, loss of smell and a cough which are the ones highlighted in all the messaging before thinking they may have Covid.

“The problem is, they either never get these symptoms at all, or if they do, it is after three or four days and they have already infected others by mixing with them.”

The Department of Health has said previously that the main Covid symptoms had been carefully selected to capture those most likely to have the virus, while not capturing a great number of people who do not.

How are Omicron symptoms different to previous variants?

Writing for The Conversation, Prof Spector explained that a shift in Covid symptoms reported to the Zoe Covid study first emerged with the arrival of the Delta variant, with shortness of breath, fever and anosmia becoming less common.

Instead, he added: “Cold-like symptoms – including a runny nose, sore throat and persistent sneezing – became more common, along with a headache and cough, particularly in people who had been vaccinated.”

This trend has continued with the Omicron variant, which manifests itself “much more like a regular cold, particularly in people who’ve been vaccinated”.

While the top five symptoms reported were the same for both Delta and Omicron, the prevalence of some signs listed by the NHS has become even less common in the new strain.

Loss of smell or taste, Prof Spector said, is now “only seen in around one in five people testing positive”, while “less than a third of people will ever experience a fever”.

Indeed, he added, only half of people with Covid involved in the study reported displaying any of the three “classic” symptoms of coronavirus.

Is Omicron less severe than previous Covid variants?

The Omicron variant has been found to be far more transmissible than Delta, which in turn was more infectious than previous strains.

However, it appears to cause less severe symptoms, with the latest Government risk assessment finding a “reduction in the relative risk of hospitalisation for adult Omicron cases compared to Delta.”

Research has found that it seems to do much less damage to the lungs, whereas previous variants would often cause scarring and serious breathing difficulty.

Studies on mice and hamsters concluded that Omicron produced less-damaging infections, often limited largely to the upper airway: the nose, throat and windpipe.

Despite this, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned against referring to the strain as “mild”.

“While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorised as mild,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing in Geneva. “Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalising people and it is killing people.”

This advice was echoed by Prof Spector: “It’s important to remember that while omicron and delta may feel like a cold to many of us, it can still kill or cause long-term symptoms that disrupt daily life, especially for people who have not been vaccinated or are immunocompromised.”

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