If You Have This Symptom, It Could Be the New COVID Variant, Says an Expert Doctor
"It's going to be very important this fall and winter for people with upper respiratory symptoms to wear masks," says a doctor who treats virus patients on the telltale signs of the COVID-19 EG.5 strain.
Fall arrives this weekend, with virus season sweeping in soon behind. A new COVID variant is anticipated to be the most dominant strain this flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
COVID EG.5—nicknamed Eris—made up about 21.5% of all cases as of early September, officially outpacing last season’s primary strains. This EG.5 spread was up from 7.5% in July and less than 1% of all cases in May.
New COVID variant symptoms
COVID EG.5 is another Omicron variant, explains Linda Yancey, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. SARS-CoV-2 Omicron was first detected in late November 2021 and has remained as the world’s main variant.
This original Omicron strain is no longer in circulation—viruses naturally mutate over time, producing new subvariants. In its monitoring efforts, the CDC currently keeps an eye on about 31 Omicron strains, including EG.5.
Experts first detected COVID EG.5 in February 2023. The following August 9, the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded Eris from a variant “under monitoring” to one “of interest.” This designation means the virus could pose an increased risk to public health.
A main reason behind this concern: “[COVID EG.5] is highly transmissible,” Dr. Yancey says. New COVID strains emerge because they’re able to spread faster and better than the previous ones, she explains. Any new strain that doesn’t spread more effectively will be rapidly outcompeted.
What are the symptoms of COVID EG.5?
Like other Omicron variants, COVID EG.5 symptoms tend to affect the upper respiratory tract, Dr. Yancey says. The most common Eris symptoms mimic the common cold, including a cough, congestion, sneezing, and a sore throat.
Newer strains tend to have milder symptoms compared to earlier variants, too. “[COVID EG.5] rarely goes down into the lungs,” Dr. Yancey says. She adds that there also seems to be less loss of smell than in previous COVID strains—but other than that, Eris is very similar to the strains that have circulated for the past year or so. “It tends to cause mostly sore throat and congestion, but only rarely pneumonia.”
That said, Dr. Yancey says the virus still poses more health risk for anyone who’s immunocompromised or who has not been vaccinated. She adds that it’s also too early to tell how likely COVID EG.5 is to result in cases of long Covid.
Should I get tested for COVID EG.5?
If you’re experiencing common cold symptoms, “testing is important for protecting the people around you,” says Dr. Yancey. Because COVID EG.5 is so transmissible, even if you experience mild symptoms you can easily pass it on to someone facing a greater health risk.
“If people know they have COVID, they can stay at home or keep their kids home from school to help reduce the spread,” she says.
The CDC also advises that everyone who is eligible should get the updated version of the COVID vaccine. According to an August 18 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the new COVID vaccines are expected to be effective against COVID EG.5.
The new COVID vaccine can help reduce the severity of symptoms—but it can also help slow the spread of Eris. One mutation of the COVID EG.5 strain allows the virus to bypass immunity you’ve built up from a previous case of COVID or vaccine. That’s what many experts think makes this variant spread particularly easily, according to the JAMA report.
Linda Yancey, MD, Infectious Disease Specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "COVID Data Tracker"
World Health Organization: "EG.5 Initial Risk Evaluation, 9 August 2023"
CDC: "HHS COMMERCIALIZATION TRANSITION GUIDE"
JAMA: "What to Know About EG.5, the Latest SARS-CoV-2 'Variant of Interest'"