New Omicron variant symptoms: Why XE variant could be mistaken for common cold

Omicron sub-variant discussed by infectious disease expert

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The NHS has updated its official list of Covid symptoms as Omicron cases continue to rise in the UK. Nine new physical symptoms have been linked to existing variants as well as the latest Omicron XE strain – but they can be harder to spot than you might think. Many coronavirus symptoms are similar to other illnesses, but which ones are linked to the common cold? How can you tell them apart?

Coronavirus has been linked to three main symptoms since the first cases emerged, but the list has recently grown to incorporate nine other signs.

The official NHS list now includes a total of 12 physical symptoms, but they aren’t all exclusive to this prominent virus.

In fact, many of the listed signs are so generic that the NHS has issued a warning on its website.

NHS advice states: “The symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other illnesses, such as colds and flu.”

What are the symptoms of Omicron XE?

While the UK’s health service has only recently updated the list of possible Covid symptoms, many of the newly added signs have been widely recognised elsewhere for a while.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US have held an equally lengthy symptoms list for some time, despite the NHS having only listed three for almost two years.

Since Monday, April 4 the official list of general COVID-19 symptoms now includes:

  • A high temperature or shivering (chills)
  • A new, continuous cough
  • A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or exhausted
  • An aching body
  • A headache
  • A sore throat
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick or being sick

How are Omicron symptoms similar to the common cold?

It is not yet thought Omicron XE (a subvariant of the original Omicron strain) has exclusive symptoms, though it is known that many reported signs closely resemble those linked to cold and flu.

The most common symptoms of the original Omicron strain include a runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat – particularly in the vaccinated population.

As outlined by the NHS, symptoms of a cold can come on gradually and can include:

  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Coughs
  • Sneezing
  • A raised temperature
  • Pressure in your ears and face
  • Loss of taste and smell

Both lists of symptoms are almost identical, though diarrhoea and a loss of appetite is more likely to be linked to COVID-19.

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How to tell the difference between Omicron and the common cold

Now free testing has come to an end in England, fewer people will be able to access regular Covid tests to detect the virus.

While sourcing a test is the only way to know for certain if you are Covid-positive, there are a number of other possible ways to identify your illness.

Australian Medical Association vice president Chris Moy claims that some symptoms are a stronger indication of COVID-19 as opposed to other respiratory infections.

He said: “A high fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea and a loss of taste or smell without a blocked nose are more aligned with COVID-19 than a sore throat, runny nose or cough.”

While Omicron may feel like nothing more than a cold, the Zoe Covid symptoms tracker app warns that it can” still hospitalise and kill people”, so it is important not to get complacent.

Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist of the app, praised the decision in a tweet in which he said the NHS had “finally changed” the symptom list after two years of lobbying.

He wrote: “Pity they have the order wrong, but it’s a start and could help reduce infections”.

Despite current public health advice stating that it is no longer a “legal requirement” to self isolate if you have Covid symptoms, the NHS recommends that you should stay at home and avoid contact with others if you have symptoms of COVID and:

  • Also have a high temperature
  • Do not feel well enough to go to work or do your normal activities

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