For example, anosmia (loss of smell or taste) was in the top ten in October but has fallen to 17th place. What was once a key indicator of Covid is now only seen in around one in five people testing positive. And according to our data, less than a third of people (29%) will ever experience a fever, which is also far less common than we’ve seen in the past.
Importantly, we found that only half of people with Covid had any of the classic three symptoms of fever, cough or loss of sense of smell, suggesting that the government’s guidance for PCR testing (which suggests that you should get a test if you have one of these three symptoms) is woefully outdated.
How bad is omicron?
This new variant is much more infectious than previous variants, causing a surge in cases across the UK and in other countries. And although it’s not yet clear whether we will be facing an overwhelming wave of hospitalisations from the disease, 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.
So far, we’ve seen the majority of cases in younger people, but we’re also now seeing cases rising in older age groups while the overall infection rate remains so high. The recent rise in positive cases in the over-75s is worrying, but we’re hopeful that the high levels of vaccination in the UK in older and more vulnerable groups will continue to translate to milder symptoms and few hospitalisations. The major problem with omicron is more the wave of sickness absence it’s causing in key health staff.
Is it omicron or a cold?
As we head further into the depths of winter here in the UK there are some pretty nasty colds going around, as well as the perennial flu. The ZOE COVID Study app data tells us the symptoms caused by the current Covid variants are very similar to those of a regular cold. This means that it’s not possible to know for sure what you’ve got based on symptoms alone. When the rate of Covid is high, a new sore throat, runny nose or unusual fatigue should be treated as Covid until you’ve been tested.
Because contributors to the ZOE Covid Study app log any daily symptoms they’re experiencing, as well as any Covid test results, we’re also able to track the prevalence of non-Covid colds. Just three months ago, around one in 12 people with new respiratory symptoms tested positive for Covid. However, with omicron around 50% of “new colds” currently are, in fact, Covid.
So if you or a family member are feeling unwell, there’s a good chance that it could be Covid, especially if you’re snuffling and sneezing a lot. You should stay home and get tested to be sure. Bear in mind that although lateral flow tests are good, especially if you swab both your throat and nose, they are less sensitive than PCR tests. When you do one, try and repeat it in the following days, as a single negative lateral flow result isn’t a guarantee that you aren’t infected.
Finally, regardless of the government guidelines, whether you have Covid or not, it’s best to stay at home if you’re feeling ill with strange or cold-like symptoms, and to avoid contacts and wear a mask if you do go out, to avoid spreading your germs to others who may be more vulnerable.