Two years ago, a sneeze or a cough wouldn’t have been cause for concern, but now even the mildest of symptoms can leave us wondering, “Do I have Covid?”
Early in the pandemic, we learned about the hallmark signs of infection, which can include loss of taste and smell, fever, cough, shortness of breath and fatigue. But what about now, more than a year later? Have symptoms changed given that the Delta variant is currently the most common form of the virus in the United States?
There is little data on this question and much left to untangle.
Unvaccinated patients make up the vast majority of those hospitalized with Covid-19, so they may be more likely to develop severe symptoms, like trouble breathing, or persistent pain or pressure in the chest. In areas with lower vaccination rates, like Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, unvaccinated children and young adults are being sent to the hospital in larger numbers than they were at other points during the pandemic. Researchers do not yet know for sure whether Delta alone is responsible for these severe symptoms or if it is the surge in childhood infections, which can result in more hospitalizations.
The Delta variant is nearly twice as contagious as prior variants and just as contagious as chickenpox. It replicates rapidly in the body, and people carry large amounts of the virus in their nose and throat.
Dr. Andrew T. Chan, an epidemiologist and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the lead investigators of the Covid Symptom Study, has been tracking millions of people from Britain, the United States and Sweden via an app that asks participants to monitor their symptoms. A preprint using data from the study that has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggests that those who are vaccinated are well protected against Delta. Breakthrough infections, while rare, tend to produce milder symptoms that are of shorter duration.
Understand the Delta Variant
Among vaccinated adults, “the symptoms we are seeing now are much more commonly identified with the common cold,” Dr. Chan said. “We are still seeing people presenting with a cough, but we are also seeing a higher prevalence of things like runny nose and sneezing.” Headaches and sore throat are other top complaints, he added. Fever and loss of taste and smell are being reported to a lesser degree.
Dr. Chan said the researchers started to see milder reported symptoms around the time the Delta variant became prevalent in Britain, starting in the late spring, which also coincided with the country’s mass vaccination program.
Pediatricians in New York City, where 67 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, say they are seeing many of the same symptoms in children that they have seen since the start of the pandemic, and that the more severe cases tend to be among unvaccinated adolescents, especially those with underlying conditions like diabetes or obesity. Some toddlers or school-age children can get very ill from Covid too, but doctors don’t always know why one kid gets much sicker than another, said Dr. Sallie Permar, pediatrician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine.
Fever, cough, fatigue, headache and sore throat are the “classic presentation of Covid” among symptomatic children, she added.
If your child has any potential Covid symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, arrange for both yourself and your child to get a Covid test and then stay home until the results are negative, said Dr. Adam Ratner, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone.
“That’s part of how we keep schools safe,” he added.
Testing is essential for adults too, the experts said. Even if you have been vaccinated and your symptoms are mild, it’s best to get tested. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to others.
“It’s a time to be humble about the fact that this is a new variant. We’re still learning,” said Dr. Mark Mulligan, the director of the N.Y.U. Langone Vaccine Center and the chief of infectious diseases at N.Y.U. Langone Health. “Be cautious and err on the side of caution in terms of going ahead and getting a test.”