What are the new COVID symptoms? | DW

In 2020, a dry cough and fever would have been clear COVID-19 symptoms, and if headaches and aching limbs had been added to the mix, it would have been a clear case of flu. With a sniffly nose and sore throat, it was likely you’d been fortunate and only caught a cold.

This is how — in very simplified form — we could describe how COVID-19 symptoms were differentiated from those of other illnesses at the beginning of the pandemic.

And then came the loss of smell and taste: the major indication of a SARS-CoV-2 infection. This is still reliable — someone who notices a change in their sense of taste or smell today should still have COVID alarm bells going off.

It is different with the other symptoms. These are somewhat more fluid. We try to track them using biomarkers and a pattern based on blood types. On top of that, they can differ depending on whether a COVID-19 sufferer has already been vaccinated, whether the infection is caused by a variant, or whether the patient is old or young, fit or unfit, or has other health concerns.

Containment scout in protective clothing with contact list of a suspected coronavirus case.

Cough, fever, headache and aching limbs? A COVID infection can come with many symptoms

The new top 5

A study underway in the United Kingdom has published data on the most recent COVID-19 symptoms. In the Zoe COVID Symptom Study, infected people reported their symptoms via an app. According to the findings, COVID-19 symptoms have apparently changed. This could be due to the delta variant, which now accounts for  99% of infections in the UK (as of July 12, 2021).

What are the most common symptoms in people who are fully vaccinated?

In general, similar symptoms of COVID-19 were reported in the app by both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, the website states. “However, those who had already been vaccinated reported fewer symptoms over a shorter period of time, suggesting that they were less likely to become severely ill and recover more quickly,” it says.

Even vaccinated people can become infected with the coronavirus. But the data confirms that these people usually have mild symptoms and that vaccination prevents severe or even life-threatening COVID-19.

The current ranking of COVID symptoms after two vaccinations is:

  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of sense of smell

Many of these are symptoms we usually associate with a cold. The possibility of confusing the two illnesses is dangerous and may have played a role in the spread of the delta variant in the UK.

What are the most common symptoms in people who have not been vaccinated?

In unvaccinated people, the symptoms are slightly different. While some remain the same, there are changes compared to when the virus first appeared about 1.5 years ago.

The current ranking of COVID symptoms in people who have not been vaccinated is:

  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Persistent cough

Loss of smell fell to ninth on the list, and shortness of breath comes even further down in 30th place. These fluctuations may indicate that previously known symptoms change as variants of the virus evolve.

Don’t be so hasty

In the podcast ‘Coronavirus Update’ (podcast/transcript in German), German virologist Christian Drosten discussed the results of the study and the YouTube statement by Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and leader of the ZOE study. He believes that an important point is being missed in the discussion of symptoms in the media.

The symptom picture in general has changed, he said, “in that older people are increasingly vaccinated, and now in their study, they’re seeing an increase in younger people who are infected.”

In younger people, the symptoms are more along the lines of a general flu-like infection, with a headache, sore throat and a bit of a fever. The persistent cough that was so typical in older patients is seen less now, Drosten says.

He would not attribute that so much to the delta variant as to trends in the susceptible population — which basically consists of younger people, as the older ones are more likely to be vaccinated.

“I think you just have to wait until something really scientific is published on this,” Drosten says.

When in doubt, get tested

If you feel unwell and you’re unsure if it is COVID-19, the right decision is always to get tested and keep your distance from others until you have a negative result. On this point, Spector and Drosten agree.

“I think that was also the purpose of this public statement to remind the population, especially the younger population that is now infected, that you have to be careful even if you don’t feel seriously ill,” says Drosten. “And [that you] shouldn’t just think to yourself: ‘Oh, it’s just a cold.'”

The recent Gutenberg COVID-19 study by the University of Mainz showed that more than 40% of all those infected with SARS-CoV-2 were unaware of their acute or previous infection.

In an interview with DW, study author Philipp Wild acknowledged that testing should not be waived because of vaccination status or low incidence rates. “It’s an important metric to keep an eye on the dynamics of the pandemic,” he said.

Staying alert and exercising caution is not optional, but a must — whether one is vaccinated, recovered or tested. And measures such as thorough hand-washing, wearing a mask and keeping a 1.5 meter (5-foot) distance from others help to prevent the spread of disease.

  • Children entering a school with a sign reminding them to keep 1.5 meters distance

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Keep your distance, please!

    These are the coronavirus rules as we know them: Keep a distance of 1.5 to 2 meters (5 to 6 feet) from others, observe good hygiene and wear a mask. But this does not do justice to the complex reality of how aerosols spread, researchers from Oxford and London (UK) and Cambridge MA (US) have written in an analysis published in the British Medical Journal in late August.

  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stretches his arms out in a school classroom.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    This much? Or more?

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to show schoolchildren how it should be done. But what does his gesture mean exactly? Do his fingertips have to be 1.5 meters away from the fingertips of another person? That would be a reasonable interpretation of the regulations. But two arm lengths alone measure 1.5 meters, so distances of 4.5 meters or more could easily result.

  •  A boy in Senegal pulling the legs of a sheep

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Are sheep lengths better?

    The Icelandic Association of Sheep Breeders has established its own rules: Two sheep lengths are appropriate to avoid infection. One may wonder if face masks are also supposed to be knitted from real sheep’s wool. This young shepherd in Senegal may be trying to find out how long a sheep is by pulling its hind leg. The Icelanders already know — exactly 1 meter.

  • A woman walking four small dogs on leashes

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Natural spacers

    Of course, this could also work. The standard length of a dog leash corresponds pretty exactly to the current coronavirus rules. Could it be a coincidence that a six-foot leash is usually prescribed for places where leashes are compulsory?

  • A man coughing and spitting out droplets.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Where does the 2-meter rule come from?

    The authors led by Lydia Bourouiba, an expert in fluid dynamics and disease transmission at MIT, writes that the rule is outdated. Two meters was the distance recommended by the German physician C. Flügge in 1897. Visible droplets that he had caught within this distance were still contagious. A 1948 study showed that 90% of streptococci coughed out in droplets flew no further than 1.7 meters.

  • People sitting in circles marking correct distancing on a lawn on the banks of the river Rhine near Düsseldorf.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Two meters are not enough

    The 1948 study was published in the American Medical Journal. It also showed that 10% of streptococci flew much further: up to 2.9 meters. If that were the case, perhaps the people on this lawn on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf would be safe — if every other circle remained free. But wait a minute — we are not dealing with streptococci (bacteria) here, but with viruses.

  • An experiment with a man singing - showing the extent of his breath reaching deep into the room.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Viruses spread via aerosols

    Viruses are much smaller than bacteria, so they can float around for hours and spread better in the air. This is why the researchers recommend that the distance between people should not be the only safety criterion but that other factors should be considered, too: How well a room is ventilated, whether people are wearing masks, and whether they are silent, speaking softly or singing and shouting.

  • People sitting outside in an African village, listening to a presentation about coronavirus hygiene.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    Do not sing or cough

    Numerous studies have also shown that coughing can propel veritable parcels of viruses up to 8 meters through the air. Speaking or singing loudly also spread a lot of aerosols and droplets about the room. If, however, people only speak quietly, as in a library, and sit in the fresh air, safe distances can be smaller again.

  • Students wearing a mask in a class room.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    How long should I stay in the room?

    The duration of a stay in a contaminated room and how many people are in that room are also decisive factors when assessing the risk of infection. The researchers have used those factors to develop a traffic light model. The clear result: In rooms with a high occupancy, you should generally stay only for a short time, make sure they are well aired, wear a mask and speak quietly.

  • A prison cell with a prisoner and a guard (picture-alliance/empics)

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    One minute is enough to get infected

    Even very brief contact can be enough to transmit SARS-CoV-2. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) had to tighten its rules on October 21, after a prison guard caught SARS-CoV-2 from prisoners with whom he had only had contact with for a few minutes at a time. Now, “close contact” is defined as being within 2 metres of an infected person for at least 15 minutes cumulatively within 24 hours.

  • A crew member on a cruise ship is measuring out the distances between chairs on the sun-deck.

    Coronavirus rules: How much physical distancing is enough?

    No mask needed here

    Here, however, the traffic light of the UK-US research team would show green. Outside, people can be safe for long periods of time even without a mask, provided there are few people around, everything is well ventilated and no one talks much. But even so, will the distance between deck chairs being measured here be enough?

    Author: Fabian Schmidt