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Omicron symptoms: Night sweats and a sore throat emerge as common symptoms

December 27, 2021, 4:47 PM UTC
Updated January 3, 2022, 7:01 PM UTC

The Omicron COVID variant tore through the U.S. over the winter holidays, with cases surging over Christmas and New Year’s as people traveled and gathered with their families.  

While those infected with Omicron exhibit many of the widely recognized COVID-19 symptoms like a runny nose, a cough, a fever, sneezing, and a change or loss in the ability to smell or taste, they also reported new symptoms like night sweats and a sore throat.

Here are the latest updates and symptoms to watch for, and what they could mean for the winter ahead.

Omicron symptoms can mimic the common cold

Researchers have found that Omicron symptoms can be similar to those of the common cold. 

The Delta variant’s symptoms have also been compared to those of the common cold, but some doctors have shared that the Omicron cases they have seen so far have been particularly mild

A U.K. study of around 750,000 people found recently that the top five symptoms for both the Delta and Omicron variants are currently a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and a sore throat. According to the South African doctor who first detected the Omicron variant, initial patients also experienced body aches and a scratchy throat. 

But for many people, Omicron is also resulting in atypical symptoms that weren’t observed with previous variants. On a popular TikTok video from late December, people currently sick with the Omicron variant weighed in on their unusual symptoms, which they said include nausea, lower back pain, muscle soreness, and even sore eyes. And Dr. John Torres, a senior medical correspondent for NBC News, said last week that Omicron cases can include night sweats. 

“People are reporting night sweats, which is a very strange symptom that they say they’re having,” Torres told the Today show

Omicron appears to be more contagious with symptoms that show up faster, but questions about severity remain

While it’s taken four or five days for coughs, headaches, and fever to manifest when infected with previous COVID strains, the incubation timetable for Omicron may be even more abbreviated. 

Data is still limited on COVID’s latest variant, which was first detected in Botswana and South Africa in mid-November, but a recent study in Norway indicates a median three-day window between exposure to the Omicron variant and symptoms—meaning that Omicron is able to spread more quickly.

Preliminary studies of the Omicron variant have suggested that infections may be less severe than those experienced from the Delta variant.

Yet we now know the Omicron variant spreads more quickly. In December, the World Health Organization said that Omicron is spreading faster than any other previous strain and that the variant is probably already in most countries, even if it has not been detected yet. 

Omicron is now the dominant strain in the U.S. There are now 1.5 million new cases per day worldwide, which is double the infection rate from last week.

A analysis published by South African researchers in December found that the risk of hospitalizations among adults who had COVID-19 was 29% lower for people who had the Omicron variant compared with the first wave of infections in 2020. However, the continent of Africa also experienced an 89% surge in new COVID-19 cases over the past week, the fastest surge since May 2020. 

Another study, from Imperial College London, found that in the Omicron cases analyzed, infection was not any less severe than those from the Delta variant.  

The World Health Organization also warned last week that the Omicron variant has not spread widely enough among at-risk populations to properly gauge its severity.

The Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik, and Sinopharm vaccines have also proved to be largely ineffective when it comes to protecting against Omicron, studies have shown. And because of the variant’s high number of mutations, health experts are saying that it may be significantly resistant to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as well. 

U.S. cities should expect a winter surge in cases

Experts say that even without Omicron, COVID infections are going through a “winter surge.” For the first time since the pandemic began, the U.S. is averaging more than 400,000 cases per day, according to the New York Times, despite 62% of the population being fully vaccinated. The daily rate is also up more than 200% from where it was two weeks ago.

At the same time, in the past two weeks, deaths from COVID have decreased 3% in the U.S. The highest national average for daily cases was set in January 2021, at 251,232, in the days following the holidays.

Some reasons for the rise in cases include people moving around the country as they did pre-pandemic, spending more time indoors because of cold temperatures outside, lower rates of mask-wearing, and waning protection from vaccinations and prior infections, Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told NPR.

As more people itch to return to life as it was before the pandemic and given the new variant’s being extremely contagious and resistant to vaccines, the risk of becoming infected is very real.

Omicron continues to spread, but some European countries are decreasing restrictions

France reported more than 232,000 new COVID cases, its highest number ever, on Dec. 31, and President Emmanuel Macron said in his New Year’s address that the weeks ahead could be difficult.

COVID infections in Italy also reached new highs as the country reported 144,000 new confirmed cases on Friday. Confirmed new cases in Spain rose above 100,000 as 2021 came to a close. Cases in the U.K., Greece, and Portugal are increasing as well.

Despite the rise in cases, however, some countries, including the U.K and France, have scaled back COVID restrictions: Both countries have cut back the number of days a person must quarantine after receiving a positive COVID diagnosis. The U.K. cut the quarantine period from 10 days to seven days, and France reduced it to five days from seven days. In France, infected people can now stop isolating after five days if they test negative. As a new school year begins, many European countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and the United Kingdom plan to return as scheduled.

People are reacting quickly to Omicron’s spread

Just before the holidays, Cornell University shut down its campus after discovering 900 positive COVID cases, according to Bloomberg. Stanford University also announced its decision to return to online classes for the first two weeks of its winter quarter owing to concerns around the Omicron variant, while Princeton University moved all of its final exams online.

Several major league sports have curtailed their seasons following outbreaks, and many Broadway shows have closed down, some permanently. Companies continue to indefinitely delay their return-to-office plans amid fears surrounding the new variant. 

“When you look at the pace of the infections now, things will get worse as we go into the depth of the winter,” Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation just before the new year. “And with Omicron breathing down our back, things could get really bad, particularly for the unvaccinated.”

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