The central theses
- Data from the ZOE-COVID Symptom Study suggest that sore throat is now the most common symptom reported by individuals infected with Omicron subvariant BA.5.
- As reports of sore throats mount, experts say Omicron BA.5 isn’t to blame for everyone.
- Sore throat is a symptom of COVID, no matter the variety. If you have a sore throat and other COVID symptoms, or may have been exposed, get tested.
The ZOE COVID Symptom Study in the UK has been tracking reports of COVID-19 cases and symptoms for scientific research. A few months ago, data from the study suggested that the most common symptom of COVID was either a runny nose or a headache.
Based on reports from 17,500 people who tested positive for COVID last week, the most common symptom is now a sore throat, followed by a headache and stuffy nose, according to a BBC report.
With the Omicron subvariant BA.5 being one of the dominant COVID strains in the UK, it is easy to assume that the spread of the variant is causing the increasing reports of sore throats. But experts say that’s not necessarily the case.
Is BA.5 to blame for a sore throat?
Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, Dean of Rutgers School of Public Health, told Verywell that increasing reports of sore throats are not really related to the BA.5 subvariant. A sore throat and headache are common symptoms of COVID, regardless of variant, and this was the case earlier in the pandemic with the alpha variant.
David Dowdy, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell that the prevalence of sore throat as a COVID symptom may not be caused by BA.5 either.
It’s true that Omicron and its subvariants are more associated with upper respiratory symptoms compared to Delta and earlier variants, but Dowdy is reluctant to attribute the increase in reports of sore throats to the prevalence of BA.5.
“It likely reflects how our own immune systems adapt to the virus, given that most people have had multiple exposures to the virus by now,” Dowdy said. “But I wouldn’t read this as a big change in the type of symptoms people have been experiencing over the past few months.”
Do you have a sore throat? keep it cool
While it can also be caused by allergies, a cold, or the flu, a sore throat can certainly be a sign it’s time to get a COVID test — especially if you think you’ve been exposed.
Whether it’s COVID or another illness, there are a few ways to relieve a sore throat at home.
According to Halkitis, the key to relieving a sore throat is making sure your throat is lubricated, cool, and refreshed — for example, by drinking electrolyte solutions or an electrolyte popsicle.
Dowdy recommends drinking plenty of fluids and considering over-the-counter lozenges or sprays with local anesthetics to numb the pain.
When to call your provider
Halkitis said it’s important to monitor your symptoms and keep track of how they’re progressing. If they don’t improve — or get worse — that’s a sign the disease is progressing. At this point, it’s time to call your doctor to make sure you get treatment to prevent complications.
Dowdy agreed, but added that some people might not want to wait that long. “If you’re older — 70 or older — or have a compromised immune system, you should have a low threshold for seeing a doctor if you get COVID-19.”
For all others? Dowdy said you should treat this like any other illness. If you have a persistent fever or chills, or ever notice a change in your mental status, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, that would be reason to see a doctor.”
What that means for you
Sore throat can be a symptom of COVID-19, regardless of which variant you have. If you have a sore throat and other COVID symptoms, get tested. If you haven’t already, get vaccinated and make sure you’re up to date with your booster shots.
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